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THEATER REVIEW

At the Bowl, some enchanted evening

Reba McEntire and Brian Stokes Mitchell lead a concert staging of 'South Pacific.'

August 06, 2007|Charlotte Stoudt | Special to The Times

It's as though these songs have always existed: "Some Enchanted Evening," "Younger Than Springtime," "There Is Nothing Like a Dame." As much a part of the postwar psyche as an open highway or a backyard barbecue, the music of "South Pacific" lives a hum away in most of us. Rodgers and Hammerstein's tuneful paeans to cockeyed American optimism sailed into the night air at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend in a buoyant concert production starring Reba McEntire and Brian Stokes Mitchell.

Adapted from James A. Michener's award-winning collection of World War II short stories, "South Pacific" debuted on Broadway in 1949 to instant acclaim, sweeping the Tonys and picking up a Pulitzer Prize for drama the following year.

Like Rodgers and Hammerstein's two previous mega hits, "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel," "South Pacific" is a populist confection with an agenda, a plea for tolerance in a post-nuclear U.S. forced to acknowledge a world larger and more complicated than the small-town origins of this duo's typical protagonists.

On an island in the Pacific, American Armed Forces wait to be useful. While the sailors grouse about the lack of female companionship, Ensign Nellie Forbush (McEntire) is being seriously swept off her feet by plantation owner and widower Emile de Becque (Mitchell). The Navy wants him for a dangerous mission; preferring passion to heroism, Emile pressures Nellie to throw over her provincial Little Rock upbringing and marry him. Can Nellie transcend her fear of difference, symbolized by Emile's impossibly adorable, mixed-race children? Will Emile pull a Bogart and do the right thing? Could they please sing "Some Enchanted Evening" just one more time?

A brightly toned, streamlined version of the full musical (the concert adaptation is by playwright David Ives), director David Lee and musical director and conductor Paul Gemignani rightly place the emphasis on the tunes, and the major talent that's shown up to sing them.

The wryly charming McEntire is perfectly cast as Arkansan Nellie. By shrugging off her appeal -- it's like a mirror she doesn't need to look in -- she pulls us in all the more, especially in playful numbers like "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair."

The elegant, white-suited Mitchell plays Emile with single-malt masculinity and a touch of Gallic dash, tempering the production's exuberance with a Sondheim-esque reflectiveness.

McEntire and Mitchell have performed this concert version before, and they have an easy way together, each graciously letting the other shine.

Her country-style sass and his urbane baritone make for an arresting vocal mix, underscoring the play's themes of bridging difference. "With your American songs," Emile teases Nellie at one point, "one is either desirous to get rid of one's lover, or one weeps for a man one cannot have."

The Frenchman claims he prefers happy-ending duets, but Mitchell's solo renditions of "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine" serve up the kind of spectacular longing a musical lover's dreams are made on.

The supporting cast is light on its feet, from the adept Michael McKean's Luther Billis to Aaron Lazar's intense Lt. Cable, who falls for the gorgeous Liat (Janelle Velasquez), daughter of the local hustler, Bloody Mary (Armelia McQueen). And like "Bali Ha'i," Bloody Mary's siren song to everyone's inner romantic, "South Pacific" calls us to come away to its dizzying world of desire, at first sight and forever.

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