How you respond to the Olney Theatre Center production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” which runs through Oct. 7, depends on a variety of things: generations and age, memory and a penchant or ability to draw comparisons and, for that matter, whether you like musicals — especially “classics” — at all.
As a for-instance, I liked “Hamilton” a lot, and not only because you can draw a line from “South Pacific” to “Hamilton” on account of their revolutionary impact, each in its own time.
That’s the subject for an essay about aspects of the American musical theater.
Personally, I liked this “South Pacific,” not enormously, but with a pleasant affection and an appreciation of the things it did really well, and also tried to do. Which also means that I had other “South Pacifics” to draw on, a process in the theater that can create difficult conditions.
It means mostly that I had seen a splendid version at Arena Stage when Artistic Director Molly Smith was in the early stages of her exploration of American musicals, that I had seen the Broadway revival with Kelli O’Hara (live and on YouTube) as Nellie Forbush and, like millions of moviegoers and fans of Turner Movie Classics, seen director Joshua Logan’s color-conscious version with a spirited Mitzi Gaynor star turn.
I am not old enough to have seen, but acknowledge the presence in the musical canon, of the original Broadway version, which starred Mary Martin as Nellie and opera legend Ezio Pinza as the French planter Emile de Beque — no doubt some enchanted evening, indeed.
Comparisons are about history, rumor, legend and memory. What’s in front of you has a legitimacy in its own right, and for that the issue of the contemporary comes up fair and square.
By now — “South Pacific” emerged as a hit Broadway show in 1949 — is showing its age when plunked down into our modern age. Let it be said that “South Pacific” is an awkward, even discomfiting fit in the #MeToo era. The fulsome but sexist lyrics of “There is Nothing Like a Dame” are exactly the kind of lyrics World War II sailors and Seabees might be singing, but they fall with a clunk on today’s younger ears, more conscious of sexual harassment and gender bias. On the other hand, the pointed song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” attacks racism in a way not heard in a Broadway musical up to that point.
“South Pacific” is a show in which romance battles with race, with romance subverted and then triumphant. The romances are the budding, glowing relationship between Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, the cockeyed optimist from Arkansas, and the French planter de Becque; and the love-at-first-sight rush of love evident between the American Lt. Cable and Liat, the daughter of “Bloody Mary.”
Both hit racial bumps — when Nellie discovers that de Becque has two biracial children and when Cable bitterly realizes that he and Liat have no future in America.
These themes and stories are played out under the umbrella of a classic R&H score, featuring such songs as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Ha’i,” “A Wonderful Guy,” “Younger Than Springtime,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.”
How a contemporary audience might react to these songs and this music as first-timers is hard to gauge. This is the kind of show that changes with each performance, depending on the audience, which defines live theater every night and matinee.
This production — while not grandly scaled — has lots of grand ingredients, not the least of which is William Michals, who performed the role of de Becque at Lincoln Center. In fact, he may be a little too good. Playing a widower with two children, Michals is so ardent and true in his singing, so passionate with his emotions, that he sometimes overwhelms the stage and the show. When he departs a scene, you immediately miss him.
Previous Nellie Forbushes have sometimes tended to be overenergetic, almost as an antidote, but I think that Jessica Lauren Ball strikes the right note of solidity. She’s a believable foil for Michals, overjoyed in finding herself in “love with a wonderful man,” deeply pained at the realization of her own initial reaction to the children. She’s not the girl next door, but an American finding herself far from her comfort zone, as, we suspect, every American caught up in the war was.
Luther Billis, the dealing and wheeling Seabee, is another American type — the salesman adrift on an island, selling what there is to sell — and David Schlumpf gives him a chaotic, modern presence.
The production has its awkward moments, but has a dogged persistent quality in its moments and in its not-so-much moments. With all that, you should still go because … it’s “South Pacific.” Bali Ha’i down the road a piece.