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THEATER REVIEW 'SOUTH PACIFIC' : Bali Low : Good supporting characters, an inventive set and terrific orchestra are strong suits of this so-so production.

July 11, 1991|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Music Theatre of Ventura County, an offshoot of the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera, debuted last year with a worthy production of "Evita."

That show proved successful enough that the unit last week opened its first complete summer season.

If the group's mediocre production of "South Pacific," which ends this weekend, is any indication, this may be one cultural infusion from the north that Ventura County doesn't really need.

Fortunately, this--with a few exceptions--lackluster presentation of a show with few strong points to begin with probably isn't indicative of the group's potential. "Evita" was fine, and the company's next two productions are the gutsier "Cabaret" and the infinitely better-written "Guys and Dolls."

"South Pacific" is pap, in a league with its composers' "The Sound of Music."

Oscar Hammerstein II and Josh Logan adapted their script from several characters and plots that originated in James Michener's 1947 collection of atmospheric short stories, "Tales of the South Pacific." Hammerstein wrote the lyrics to Richard Rodgers' music.

You can't beat "South Pacific" for local interest. The action takes place at a World War II Seabee base in the South Pacific, and Oxnard Civic Auditorium's location is within marching distance of the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion Center in Port Hueneme.

But the show's book waters Michener down to where only names and the setting are recognizable from the original stories. And what was controversial then, the prejudice against non-Caucasians, has been further diluted by 40 years of cultural enlightenment.

The songs remain, many of them now longtime standards. "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair," "Some Enchanted Evening," "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" and "Bali H'ai" are among the best-known tunes in Broadway history.

Its original cast featured Mary Martin and opera star Ezio Pinza in leading roles; either could carry a show on personal charisma alone.

What charisma crosses the lip of the Oxnard Civic Auditorium stage this time around comes from the supporting characters, notably Frank Stancati and Rose Anna B. Vitetta as noncom "big dealer" Luther Billis and Tonkinese entrepreneur Bloody Mary, both of whom steal every scene they're in.

The show's main plots revolve around two love affairs, one between naive nurse Nellie Forbush and expatriate French plantation owner Emile de Becque, and the other between Marine Lt. Joseph Cable and the young Tonkinese girl, Liat. While all are capable performers, none exactly lights up the stage with personality.

Susan Law and Don Stewart display no fireworks as de Becque and Forbush, Paul Formanek is a bland Cable, and Lee Ann Inouye's Liat simply has little to do and less to say--and what she does say, she says in French.

As de Becque, Stewart speaks in a French accent so thick that he's not always easy to understand, body microphones or not.

All regional inflections disappear when he and Law, who as Forbush speaks with what's supposed to be a rural Arkansas accent, sing.

The show is something to see, thanks to an inventive set designed by James Noone and rented from a theater in Birmingham, Mich., and to lighting designer Russell Pyle, whose many international credits include the Music Theatre version of "Evita."

The 17-piece orchestra, under the direction of Elsie Unruh, played well and sounded terrific, but the leading actors' voices depended too much on unreliable electronic amplification.

Director and choreographer Toni Kaye's recent credits include Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera productions of "Damn Yankees" and "Mame."

Here, she makes what she can of what she's given to direct, but the dance numbers are largely unimaginative--exceptions being Nellie's soft-shoe in "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy" and the ensemble work in "Honey Bun."

Somebody, Kaye or producer Paul Iannaccone, most likely, didn't insist on much attention being paid to details. The nurses, for instance, wore '80s or '90s-style hairdos, and many of the sailors wore brand-new sneakers.

Local community theaters routinely try harder, and with a much more limited budget.

Not to press a point too hard, but "Tales of the South Pacific" is available in a $5.95 Fawcett Crest paperback edition or at the library, and the "South Pacific" Broadway and film cast albums are available on compact disc.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"South Pacific" continues tonight through Sunday at the Oxnard Civic Auditorium, 800 Hobson Way, in Oxnard. Curtain time is 8 tonight through Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday, with matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Ticket prices range from $11.50 to $27.50, with discounts available for groups, seniors, students and active military. For reservations or information call (800) 366-6064.

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