Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Classic Post-War American Musicals: South Pacific and Kiss Me, Kate

Joan Almedilla singing "Bali H'ai" to Cameron Loyal and the sailors in South Pacific.

Of the trio of Rodgers and Hammerstein mega-hits from the 1940s, South Pacific (1949) gets the fewest productions. Even Carousel, with its rigorous vocal demands and its onstage carousel, is revived more often. (Oklahoma! seems to show up somewhere every season.) South Pacific has a big, mostly male cast and the machinations of the plot, adapted from stories in James Michener’s World War II novel Tales of the South Pacific, are complicated, especially in the second act, when the two major male characters, a French planter named Émile de Becque and Navy Lieutenant Joe Cable, are carrying on a covert military operation on one of the smaller islands. But it’s the most interesting of the three shows because of its theme and because the Arksansas-born protagonist, Navy Nurse Nellie Forbush, is the most unusual heroine in any musical of its era. Though R&H wrote two of their most relentlessly upbeat songs for her, “A Cockeyed Optimist” and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, who co-wrote the book, expose the darker side of her character. She falls in love with de Becque but runs away from him when she discovers that he fathered two children with his late Polynesian mistress. Her story is echoed by Cable’s:  he tumbles for a young islander named Liat but realizes that he could never bring a woman of color home to his family in Philadelphia.

The new production of South Pacific at the Goodspeed Opera House doesn’t balance these challenging elements successfully. It’s not very appealing to look at – the staging is static except when the director, Chay Yew, moves the actors around in parallel lines, and the set by veteran Alexander Dodge is surprisingly scrappy. (The choreography by Parker Esse is better, and Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting design is better still.) And though the voices are good, the acting mostly isn’t. Rodgers and Hammerstein strove toward a greater realism in musical theatre, and though the dialogue doesn’t exactly soar, it tries hard to be gritty rather than synthetic. But here the chorus of Seabees is broad and caricatured and the musical performances are big and self-conscious. The exception is Joan Almedilla as Bloody Mary, Liat’s mother: though Almedilla has a beautiful instrument, she sings the lustrous “Bali H’ai” and even the icky “Happy Talk” to privilege acting values over vocal showiness. The night I saw the show the understudies, Hannah Jewel Kohn and Eric Briarley, were covering Nellie and Émile, and both sang well; I don’t know if the usual leads, Danielle Wade and Omar Lopez-Cepero, have been any more successful in bringing this relationship to life. I would have directed Kevin Quillon as Luther Billis, the clownish sailor who turns out to be an unexpectedly hero, to understate a little more, but he’s fun to watch. The big problem is the young couple, Cable (Cameron Loyal) and Liat (Alex Humphreys):  he’s a cardboard cut-out with a nice voice and she doesn’t even begin to suggest a character.