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Theater | Theater Review

Strong Voices Waft Over 'South Pacific'

June 06, 2002|DARYL H. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like a breeze off the water, a fresh new revival of "South Pacific" has swept into the area--spiced with mystery and enchantment, yet chased along by a gathering storm.

A tale of paradise found, lost and found again during World War II's Pacific battles, the 1949 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical can be devilishly tricky to get right. Yet this touring production, now at the Orange County Performing Arts Center and traveling soon to San Diego and Los Angeles, maintains a delicate balance between sunny entertainment and sobering enlightenment.

The production's greatest strength is its voices. Headliner Robert Goulet plays Emile de Becque, the French-born plantation owner who enchants Arkansas-raised nurse Nellie Forbush during her posting on a Pacific island. It's a part to which the actor's still impossibly rich bass-baritone is well suited (although he has an annoying tendency to scoop up into some pitches).

But the unalloyed delights here are the other leads: Amanda Watkins, a sparkling mezzo-soprano, as Nellie; Lewis Cleale, a ringing lyric baritone, as the heroic Lt. Cable; and Gretha Boston, a resonant mezzo and 1995 Tony winner (featured actress, for "Show Boat"), as entrepreneur Bloody Mary.

Better still is the male chorus depicting U.S. Naval personnel. These guys are itching for action--military and otherwise--as they cool their heels, awaiting the call to battle in the incongruously beautiful islands that set designer Derek McLane has rendered with photo-realistic stands of palm trees and picture-perfect stretches of beach.

Testosterone wafts off the stage as these strapping, deep-voiced men roar through "Bloody Mary," their comic tribute to the central woman in their lives, and "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame," a raucous ode to womanhood in general. Also beautifully handled is "Happy Talk," in which the Tonkinese Bloody Mary tries to persuade Lt. Cable to propose marriage to her daughter, Liat. While Boston, as Bloody Mary, uses her voice to paint a sunny picture of their possible life together, Kisha Howard, as Liat, renders the same image with lotus-like sign language and supple undulations of her torso.

Cleale's Cable is enraptured, yet years of ingrained thought tell him he can't marry outside his race. Suddenly ashamed, Cleale is strangled with bitterness as he bites through the show's groundbreaking song about prejudice, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught."

Scott Faris, whose credits consist principally of flashy Las Vegas shows, is credited as the main director, but the insightful Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks is listed as production consultant. Whoever is responsible, the fact remains that this production--with its emphasis on the music--stands as a wonderfully fitting tribute to Rodgers as the world celebrates the centenary of his birth.

"South Pacific," Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Today-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $27.50-$62.50. (213) 365-3500, (714) 740-7878 or www. ocpac.org. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

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