While many shows lose their potency with age, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 50-year-old “South Pacific” seems fresh and alive in the hands of Pioneer Theatre Company.
Our story has Army nurse Nellie Forbush (played with charisma and grace by Leah Hocking) as a new arrival on an island in the South Pacific during World War II. There she meets middle-aged French expatriate Emile de Becque (the booming-voiced PTC mainstay Robert Peterson), whom she falls in love with.
In the meantime, Lt. Joseph Cable (John Cudia) arrives with a mission in mind: He wants to hide himself and another man on a nearby island to spy on the Japanese. Emile is an obvious choice because he knows the area so well, but he won’t go: With his love for Nellie, he has too much to lose.
The show is more than a simple love story, though. The subject of racism is addressed, which alone makes “South Pacific” noteworthy, for how many other shows — a musical, even! — in 1949 were dealing with such a volatile and serious topic? (Answer: not many.)
Peterson is powerful as Emile, playing the role with great authority and dignity. He’s the kind of actor/singer who would have been highly valued on Broadway in the days before microphones, as he no doubt could have been heard in the back row without electronic assistance. Hocking does more than her share as Nellie, too, carrying the show along smoothly and generally being the highlight of any scene she’s in.
The show is marred (and made longer) by an awkward, semi-creepy subplot involving Lt. Cable. Local trinket-seller Mary (the sweet Emily Yancy) sets the handsome Cable up on a date with her young daughter Liat (Francine Wong), with the hopes that they will fall in love. This they do in a matter of 30 seconds, despite a heavy-duty language barrier and a height difference of more than a foot. It is implied that their relationship becomes intimate, and Mary eggs the whole thing on — a little weird, and, more importantly, virtually unrelated to the rest of the show. The subplot goes nowhere and proves nothing; it almost feels like padding in a show that is a little too long already.
Bill Cohen is funny as the Harvey Fierstein-like scheming seaman Luther Billis. Richard Mathews and Max Robinson, both always reliable, are solid as the commanding officer and his assistant, respectively.
Songs like “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Ha’i” and “There is Nothing Like a Dame” are classics in musical theater, and they have earned that distinction. The music is altogether excellent in this show, with James Prigmore conducting the live orchestra and Hope Clarke choreographing two or three energetic dance numbers.
George Maxwell’s lush, gorgeous set is worth mentioning, too. Maxwell manages to top himself with every show he does, and this one is beautiful.
“South Pacific” is charming, almost enchanting, and the cast here performs it passionately. Young and old alike should enjoy this show, one that has endured the test of time.
Interesting that I saw this just as I was taking a lot of heat for my semi-negative review of another Rodgers and Hammerstein show, "The King and I." "South Pacific" is a far better show, all the way around.