SOUTH PACIFIC (Walnut): A pleasure among the palm trees

Company of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Company of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.

One of the great Broadway musicals, SOUTH PACIFIC (or as the Walnut Street Theatre is calling it, Rogers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, as though there were another), is always a pleasure. Under Charles Abbott’s direction, the gorgeous songs (“Some Enchanted Evening”) and jolly songs (“There is Nothing Like a Dame”) and haunting songs (“Bali Ha’i”) and rambunctious songs (“I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”), and sad songs (“This Nearly Was Mine”) and funny songs (“Honey Bun”) are surefire entertainment. Add two romantic plots and a sadly still-relevant sociopolitical theme, and the show provides a wonderful evening in the theater.

Even when it’s over-miked so that some of the songs sound like recordings. Even when the male lead is miscast.

Even when the palm trees zoom around the set in a comical and alarming way.

The plot is drawn from a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel by James A. Michener, entitled Tales of the South Pacific. Michener’s plot was in turn, drawn from his own experience during WWII when he was stationed on a tiny island, one of a group now called Venuatu. It’s worth thinking about how bold this show was for 1949: long before the Civil Rights Movement, the story revolves around racism (the lesson contained in the bitter song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”). And the war in the Pacific had only recently ended, so daring and dangerous missions, like the one undertaken by the show’s main male characters, would have been vivid memories for SOUTH PACIFIC’s original audience.

Kate Fahrner plays Nellie Forbush, a navy nurse, with gusto; she’s a “cockeyed optimist,” a hick from Little Rock who she falls in love with a sophisticated French plantation owner, Emile de Becque; Paul Schoeffler in that role isn’t convincing as a glamorous European (what’s he doing in baggy chinos?) and his baritone seems to require head-shaking to emphasize each emotional high point.

Alison T. Chi and Ben Michael in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Alison T. Chi and Ben Michael in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Ben Michael, with a smooth tenor, takes the other romantic lead as Lt. Joe Cable who falls in love with Liat, an island girl (Allison T. Chi), the daughter of Bloody Mary (Lori Tan Chinn), always a crowd-pleasing role.

More comic relief is provided by Luther Billis (the hilarious Fran Prisco) who also provides hot showers and grass skirts and the Thanksgiving show for the troops—a rousing opening to the somber Act 2.

An interesting sidelight: Richard Rodgers was famous for speedy writing.  Legend has it that Oscar Hammerstein handed him a piece of paper with typewritten words on it. Rodgers said, “Excuse me” and went into the other room where the piano was, sat alone for a few minutes, and then went to the piano and composed “Bali Ha’i.”   He later said, “I think the whole process didn’t take more than 5 minutes.” Of course, he freely admits, he’d been thinking about the idea for that song for months. But the gestation, he explained, was mental—he didn’t have two consecutive notes written down before then.

And a remarkable moment: Will Hammerstein, Oscar’s grandson, was there for opening night.  

[Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street] September 6-October 23, 2016; walnutstreettheatre.org.

 

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About the author

Toby Zinman

Toby Zinman is Professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor in China. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on American drama. Her fifth book, Replay: Classic Modern Drama Reimagined, was recently published by Methuen, and she has just finished an essay, "Visions of Tragedy in Contemporary American Drama," due out in 2017. Zinman is also the chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. She was named by American Theatre magazine as, “one of the 12 most influential critics in America.” Her travel writing has taken her all over the world, from dogsledding in the Yukon to hiking across England.