Sunday, March 20, 2011

An Unexpected Problem: Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific

The touring production of the 2008 Tony-winning revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's South Pacific wrapped its second Toronto production in a year yesterday (it's part of the local company's, Dancap, subscription series). Normally, I wouldn't bother reviewing a show that has closed, but since it will likely set up tent in another city soon (though that city has not yet been announced), I felt there was an issue I had to address.

Full disclosure: I've never been a fan of musical theatre, whether it's on stage or on film, with the exception of Singin' in the Rain (1951), so I attended a little reluctantly. Based on James A. Michener's World War Two-set Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, or rather series of linked stories, Tales of the South Pacific (1947), the musical tells the story of Ensign Nellie Forbush, an American nurse stationed on a fictitious island near the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. She's attached to a Navy command post located there. The military men and nurses have not seen combat and while away their time flirting, falling in love and carousing. Well, the men do the carousing, in such songs as “There's Nothing Like a Dame” and “Bloody Mary.” Nellie has fallen in love with an ex-expatriate French man, Emile de Becque. De Becque is a plantation owner on the island who has more than one secret. She's conflicted because de Becque's mysteries are irritating and he's a lot older than her. They sing about their love, break up, fall back in love, break up, make up, bicker, are separated and then finally reunite. The subplot features a navy flier, Lieutenant Cable, who has fallen in love with a local Polynesian girl.

Besides the aforementioned songs, the show is a legend because of several of the Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes that are still sung and recorded to this day: “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Ha'i,” “I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” “A Wonderful Guy,” “Younger Than Springtime” and “Happy Talk.” These songs are remembered and beloved for a reason, they're damn good, and so it is not surprising that South Pacific continues to be revived.

Carmen Cusack as Nellie Forbush
The cast is almost without fault. Carmen Cusack is wonderful as Nellie Forbush. Her Southern draaaawwwl is something I could have listened to all night. She sings beautifully and is dynamic whenever she's on stage. Aaron Ramey, as Lieutenant Cable, is handsome and earnest and gets the job done with little fuss. Jodi Kimura, as Bloody Mary, the island Madam and con woman is always entertaining. Timothy Gulan, as the scheming, conniving enlisted man, Luther Billis, is a laugh (he's obviously an inspiration for the con man, Sgt. J.J. Sefton, played by William Holden in Billy Wilder's 1953 Stalag 17 – although Holden's character is deadly serious). The only real weak link is Jason Howard as Emile de Becque. This Welsh actor is a bit stiff, and his accent and almost absurdly deep singing voice were frequently irritating. I see no fault with the rest of the cast. The production itself is top notch: well-staged, well-lit, the 26-member orchestra is exceptional and the theatre, Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts, has wonderful acoustics and sight lines. So, why did I generally dislike the show? And no, it's not a function of my disliking musicals.

Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi in South Pacific (1958).
The problem with South Pacific is a problem that has always been there and will always be there: the book for the musical by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan is awful. Sure, most musicals don't tend to have much of a book, but this one is absurd. The fall-in-love/fall-out-of-love Nellie/Emile doesn't suggest conflicted characters, it suggests Nellie is deranged, racist (well, that makes sense as she is a southern US white woman from the 1940s) and probably bi-polar. The entire subplot of Cable and his relationship with the Polynesian girl is so completely superfluous that its only point seems to be to try and pull the heartstrings of the audience. They fall in love, in terms of stage time, in under one minute. I understand the creative team was using the characters to make a point about racial intolerance, but the same darn thing occurs in the relationship between Nellie and Emile.


The other point of Cable and the girl seems to be to have somebody to kill off. Cable and Emile are sent on a secret mission to spy on the Japanese. We hear one radio report from them both, then a couple minutes later (about a week in the play's time), de Becque radios that Cable has been killed. Not only is this insanely abrupt, but happens bloody well off stage. Sheesh. The problems go on and on. Unfortunately, this is not a unique problem for Rodgers & Hammerstein shows. For example, Billy, the main character in Carousel, is a wife-beating creep and thief. Yet this fact is never really dealt with.

Carousel (1956).
And still South Pacific and Carousel are beloved by critics and audiences whenever they are revived. Are they all blind to the fact that these shows' books are terrible, or are they just there to hear a group of great songs sung well? I think it is the latter. So, instead of going to all the trouble of mounting these whole shows, next time some wise producer should create a show called, oh I don't know, The Rodgers & Hammerstein Song Book, hire a bunch of great singers to perform the songs, and then, thank you and good night. It was the songs and Cusack's wonderful drawl that I took away from this show, and I bet that's what most people remember too.

So, if this show comes to your town, in whatever incarnation, really think twice about attending. It's time decrepit shows like this and Carousel were retired from everybody's repertoire. The songs are still quite wonderful, but you no longer need the shows they are attached to in order for the best-loved tunes to be enjoyed.

– David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to or more information.

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