- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2002

In the usual pre-show announcements about turning off your cell phones and beepers, Arena Stage adds a coda that no matter how irresistible it is, please don't belt out the songs from "South Pacific" along with the cast. That seems like a no-brainer, but admittedly, it is difficult to keep yourself from turning the show into an audience-participation lollapalooza similar to "The Singalong Sound of Music." Tunes such as "Some Enchanted Evening," "There Ain't Nothin' Like a Dame," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair" and "Younger Than Springtime" are burned into our consciousness to such a point that it seems natural to join the cast in song.

But save your warbling for the ride home or the shower, lest you miss the fine voices and ebullient energy exuded by Arena's production of "South Pacific," which is Artistic Director Molly Smith's first foray into directing a major musical. Her fluid, fetching staging, for the most part, seems to indicate that Miss Smith has a flair for song and dance.

The music and lyrics from "South Pacific" are so swooning that the show even retains its charms when performed by the high school theater department. It is hard to fail when you have such theatrical gold as the songs "Bali H'ai," "A Wonderful Guy," "Happy Talk" and "Honey Bun," but this production further gilds the gold with some outstanding leading roles and lissome choreography by Baayork Lee.

Miss Lee makes the Seabees the chorus of rough, raggle-taggle Navy men dance as if they were in Jerome Robbins' "Fancy Free." On the other hand, she aces the kooky, crude bumps and grinds performed by Luther Billis (Lawrence Redmond), the jack-of-all-trades Seabee, in his number "Honey Bun." You have to see the excellent, exuberant Mr. Redmond, with hubcaps on his hips, shimmying to the lyrics "twirly and whirly" to believe it.

"South Pacific" may have abundant high spirits and satiny music, but its bumpy subject matter deals with racism, segregation, class consciousness and the ravages of war. All of these serious topics are set in a beautiful tropical island landscape where Navy personnel mingle with the native Tonkinese during World War II.

The musical is based loosely on James A. Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific," a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about his experiences during that war.

Written in 1949, before the civil rights movement caught fire, "South Pacific" deals with racism in the love stories of two sets of characters.

Nellie Forbush (Kate Baldwin), a Navy nurse, is a spitfire from Little Rock, Ark., who seems to embody fresh-faced 1940s moxie. She has fallen hard for Emile de Becque (Richard White), a wealthy and middle-aged French plantation owner. The stars fall from her eyes after she discovers that he has fathered mixed-race children with a Polynesian woman.

The second set of lovers are Lt. Joe Cable (Brad Anderson), a well-born and sensitive military man from Philadelphia, and Liat (Liz Paw), the young daughter of the opportunistic native souvenir peddler, Bloody Mary (Lori Tan Chinn). From a modern standpoint, it is hard to stomach the sentimental, romanticized treatment of Liat, who is basically prostituted to Joe by her mother, but Miss Paw adds unspoken dignity and subtlety to the role.

So does Miss Chinn as Bloody Mary, a character who could be a howling stereotype in the wrong hands. Miss Chinn treats Bloody Mary's pidgin English and overblown behavior as an enormous joke but she does not fool around when it comes to the doomed love that blooms between Joe and Liat. In fact, Miss Paw and Miss Chinn are so gifted that they give the song "Happy Talk" unexpected impact, as the nonsensical words become a desperate attempt to remain cheerful in the midst of harsh reality.

The problem is that Mr. Anderson is merely serviceable as Lt. Cable. His most searing song, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," an ode to ingrained prejudice, is tossed off without any emotional gravity. When the final chapter closes in Lt. Cable's tragic love story, you almost have to remind yourself who he is.

You don't have that issue with Mr. White's big-hearted, stage-filling turn as Emile de Becque. He has presence to burn with his imposing physique and gorgeous matinee-idol singing voice. (He was the voice of the hypermacho Gaston in the animated feature "Beauty and the Beast.") In a role that can be stiff and representational, Mr. White adds life and bits of humor, waggling his eyebrows and gently jesting about Nellie's command of French.

Miss Baldwin, as Nellie, proves a delightful foil to Mr. White. For starters, clad in perky shorts and halter-top sets (part of Robert Perdziola's swingy costume design), she looks like a Betty Grable pinup. You love her spunk and forthrightness and the languorous twang she gives certain line readings, but some of Miss Baldwin's vocal inflections are odd, dipping down way low on the ends of stanzas until you worry that she cannot handle the notes.

Miss Smith keeps everything flowing in a circular motion that recalls a tropical breeze in the way characters seem to blow on and off from the wings. The show moves well into the second act, but then the parade of characters seems to be more for padding than creating texture, and the addition of a nightmare sequence involving Nellie bears uneasy comparisons to "The Wizard of Oz."

Arena's production has many strong points, including some inspired performances. It is hard not to like a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical but you wind up wishing the show were as exuberantly on fire as the theater's rendition of "Guys and Dolls" a few seasons back.


***

WHAT: "South Pacific" by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturday matinees; 2:30 Sunday matinees through Feb. 2.

WHERE: Fichlandler Theater, Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

TICKETS: $34 to $52

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING FOUR STARS

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