There was a time when everybody in the United States wanted to see "South Pacific." In 1985 the question is, Do we want to see it again? If your answer is yes, there is no reason you shouldn't enjoy Civic Light Opera's revival at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, starring Richard Kiley and Meg Bussert. If your answer is no, this production won't change your mind.
The publicity material promises "an entirely new concept," but this extends only to the visual side of the evening, and the opening-night results were mixed. Set designer Andrew Jackness' intent, presumably, was to be spare and suggestive, in the manner of the Oriental theater--to present Bali Ha'i, that magic island, for instance, as if it were an image on a watercolor scroll.
Unfortunately, Jackness' set looked like that of a low-budget flat-floor road show for much of the first act, set in the Seabees camp where Ensign Nelly Forbush (Bussert) is a nurse. The funkiness of the camp would make an effective contrast with the dreamy mists of Bali Ha'i, you would think; but this camp seemed to be unfurnished.
The fact that several light cues were blown Thursday night allowed the interpretation that the production wasn't totally in place. (Paul Gallo did the lighting.) Perhaps later its new visual concept will read as minimalism, rather than thrift.
If director A. J. Antoon's dramatic concept is new, it escaped me. In fact, some of his ideas, such as having the Seabees give a snappy salute to the audience at the curtain call, would have been corny in the 1940s. Antoon isn't resisting this material. If Rodgers and Hammerstein want perky nurses, horny Seabees and solemn, secret missions that will "turn this war around," they've got it.
Kiley as De Becque was in somewhat rocky voice Thursday night, but the big notes were there, and the characterization was pleasant and unforced. Beneath his French accent, this De Becque is half-American already, and should get along fine with his in-laws back in Little Rock, once they get used to the part about his having two dusky children (Ruby Chang, Max Barabas.)
Bussert as Nellie does fairly well in the difficult task of not reminding us of Mary Martin, but she should do more to remind us of Meg Bussert. She sings well, dances well enough, has a good sense of fun (especially when she and Luther Billis--Al Mancini--cut up in "Honey Bun" at the camp show) but she's a little bland dramatically. The hurt when she's on the outs with Kiley, for instance, does not go very deep.
True, "South Pacific" doesn't go very deep. One can remember when Cable's "Carefully Taught" number was regarded as a daringly serious plea for racial brotherhood, something one just didn't do in a romantic musical. Today it jars terribly against Cable's next lines about going out to the island to hunt Japs. The years aren't treating this show nearly as well as the other Rodgers and Hammerstein classics.
The score remains serviceable, with its highlights a matter of taste. "Some Enchanted Evening" has always struck me as pompous and contrived, while "Younger Than Springtime" reliably melts me--the reader may have just the opposite opinion. It can be said that Kiley does his best not to sound pompous in the former and that Brent Barrett sings the latter ardently, one of the moments when this "South Pacific" is very much in place.
Another strength is Novella Nelson's performance as Bloody Mary, a lady one would not care to get on the wrong side of. A weakness is Richard Levi's overchoreography when the GIs are proclaiming that there is nothing like a dame. They look like an entertainment unit from Special Services.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical, presented by Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Civic at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Producers Don Gregory, Jon Cutler and Irving Mansfield, in association with Kenneth F. Martel and Martel Media Productions Inc. Music Richard Rodgers. Lyrics Oscar Hammerstein II. Book Hammerstein, Joshua Logan. Based on James Michener's novel, "Tales of the South Pacific." Director A. J. Antoon. Choreography Richard Levi. Scenery Andrew Jackness. Costumes Linda Fisher. Lighting Paul Gallo. Orchestrations Robert Russell Bennett. Musical supervisor Paul Gemignani. Musical director Jim Coleman. Sound Sound Associates. Casting Julie Hughes, Barry Morse. Production stage manager Peter Lawrence. Hair design Werner Shear. With Ruby Cheng, Max Barabas, Peter Yoshida, Meg Bussert, Richard Kiley, Novella Nelson, Andrew Hammond, Al Mancini, Leslie Feagan, Brent Barrett, Walter Flanagan, Gary Holcombe, Russ Jolly, Dan Shaheen, Jade Go, Al De Cristo. Plays Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 7 p.m., with Wed. and Sat. matinees at 2 p.m. After June 3, plays Mon.-Sat. at 8 p.m., with matinees Wed. and Sat. at 2 p.m. Tickets $13.50-$35. Closes July 6. At the Music Center. (213) 216-6666.