A friend once told me that she was conceived to the soundtrack of South Pacific. Given this World War II-set musical's sexual tensions and tropical setting, I'm sure she isn't alone in being able to make that claim. "Some Enchanted Evening," reprised throughout and now a standard, surely helped launch countless destinies.
But this deathless Rodgers and Hammerstein show isn't all "Happy Talk." Besides the romance, its plot is one in which cultures and races collide. (The material is based on James Michener's Pulitzer Prize–winning Tales of the South Pacific, a fictionalized version of the author's World War II experiences.) South Pacific, which saw a successful and Tony Award–winning Broadway revival in recent years, remains unfortunately pertinent.
The production onstage at Musical Theater Heritage, directed by Sarah Crawford, truncates the story, putting the music at the center. The songs are this show's power source, and here they help bridge missing pieces of the plot puzzle. Despite some disjointedness in Act 1, strong performances — star turns and superb ensemble work — provide contextual compensation. We get the gist. (And with a running time that still clocks in at nearly two and a half hours, the show doesn't feel too trimmed.)
MTH's minimal sets and costumes liberate this company to focus on the songs, whose lyrics give this show its depth. Amid the frivolity of horny sailors, stationed away from diversions, and a lovestruck military nurse, moments of poignancy and joy pull us into a world of love and war.
And that world reaches out and grabs us with charismatic, talented singer-actors and a knockout eight-piece orchestra (conducted by Jeremy Watson). As a French expatriate living on this island base, the excellent Christopher Sanders oozes charm and refined masculinity as the dashing, eligible older man Emile. But his sights are on just one young bachelorette, a Navy nurse named Nellie, from Little Rock, played cute and dumb (and with a thick Southern accent) by an effervescent Ashley Pankow. Their shared "Twin Soliloquies," featuring their fine voices, is entertaining foreplay to the ascendant yearning of his "Some Enchanted Evening."
But her discovery of his young mixed-race children (the darling and very capable Julia and Janiel Balino) threatens to barricade the couple's road to romance.
A parallel love story also puts race front and center. On the island for a mission, Lt. Cable (a very able Adam Branson) falls in love with the young Tonkinese beauty Liat (Megan Herrera, also good), a feeling he renders in a touching "Younger Than Springtime." Liat's mother, the seemingly crass, two-dimensional Bloody Mary (an animated Enjoli Gavin), is determined to see the girl married off to the officer. Cable's sobering "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" depicts this blue blood's dilemma while confronting a society's racism head-on. (The original 1949 production met with some controversy in the South.)
The two supporting choruses — the sailors and Nellie's fellow nurses — provide comic relief ("There Is Nothing Like a Dame") and rousing melodies. Justin Barron (as Billis) leads the talented pack, which carries its weight and then some.
South Pacific can seem appallingly retrograde in its outlines. The sailors are silly, the nurses coquettish, Bloody Mary a cartoon. But these caricatures were, and still are, equal-opportunity — and not as shallow as they first appear. The comedy provided a foundation for the composers' insertion of serious (and, in 1949, daring) material.
And that more thoughtful aspect of South Pacific remains recognizable, real and affecting. The show still gets under the skin.