by David A. Rosenberg
Bloody Mary is the girl I love,” sing the G.I.’s in “South Pacific.” In director Allegra Libonati’s straightforward, exuberant production of the classic musical, she’s whom everyone will love. Though hardly a “girl,” the meddling Tonkinese woman selling shrunken heads and grass skirts is a single-minded mother when it comes to marrying her daughter, Liat, to the well-born Lt. Cable.
As played by Janelle Robinson, Bloody Mary damn near steals this show about servicemen waiting out World War II on a Pacific island. From her first entrance, when she extols her goods and tries to lure Cable to the exotic, off-limits island of Bali Ha’i, to happy talking Cable and Liat, Robinson grabs the stage as if it were a lifeline. While she lacks the character’s desperation -- this production doesn’t go that far -- she manifests the musical’s melding of impossible opposites: idyllic Polynesian peacefulness vs. the brutal realties of war.
Oscar Hammerstein, ever the cockeyed optimist, ever the humanitarian, combined two of James A. Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific” to fashion a brilliant libretto (with Joshua Logan) and heartfelt lyrics in a show about prejudice and racial understanding.
In one plot strand, Nellie Forbush, a self-described hick from Little Rock, is wooed and won by Emile de Becque, a cultured French planter. All seems on track until she discovers he’s fathered two children by his deceased Polynesian wife. The kids are, gasp, “colored.”
The other strand involves Cable, an uptight but passionate Philadelphian who falls for Liat whom he couldn’t possibly marry because, as he sings, his upbringing wouldn’t permit it. (“You’ve got to be taught / Before it’s too late / To hate all the people / Your relatives hate.”)
This is heady stuff for a musical, no less in 1949, just four years after the war, than now when we seem to be enmeshed in never-ending conflicts. Deeper implications are not, however, explored here, although de Becque’s line to American officers, “I know what you are against; what are you for,” continues to resonate.
No matter its implications, when melodies waft about the attractive tent that shields theatergoers in Waveny Park, neither peaceniks nor warmongers will resist. One of the greatest musicals in the American canon, it’s filled with a cascade of unforgettable melodies by Richard Rodgers: “Some Enchanted Evening,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa my Hair” and the gorgeous “Younger Than Springtime.” Add the rousing “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” sung with lusty abandon by the men’s chorus. It gets the blood racing.
As Emile, Daniel Klein’s voice rings with conviction, his acting filled with sincerity. Nick Reynolds is a blustery Luther Billis, while Jason Michael Evans is touching as the conflicted Lt. Cable. Also excellent are Jason Law as Cmdr. Harbison, Patrick Spaulding as Capt. Brackett and Kim Wong as the yearning Liat. Kudos to Libonati’s handling of the ensemble, making individuals out of what could be generic roles, helped by Doug Shankman’s vigorous choreography.
As Nellie Forbush, however, Tiffan Borelli is too sophisticated. She seems removed from the action, a goddess looking down on mere mortals enmeshed in dangerous situations. Although she sings well and acts with verve, Borelli’s Nellie is someone who wouldn’t deign to risk breaking a fingernail.
Julia Noulin-Mérat’s set design puts Bali Ha’i (and such a tacky looking one to boot) practically on top of the onstage action when it could be set in trees and sky, as glimpsed through the upstage opening in the tent. How much more mysterious and beckoning that would be. Sarah Cogan has more success with the period costumes.
It’s the score that counts most. David Hancock Turner conducts an orchestra that does right about music and lyrics that extended the accomplishment of those two geniuses, Rodgers and Hammerstein.