By Jean Lowerison
The idea of going to Bali Ha’i sounds pretty good to me right now. Alas, I’m a little short of cash and time.
So I did the next best thing: I saw San Diego Musical Theatre’s smashing production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic 1949 musical “South Pacific,” on the boards through May 27 at the Horton Grand Theatre.
Based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” the musical won 10 Tony awards and a Pulitzer Prize. The show boasts one excellent song after another and a cast of fine singing actors bring to life the vibrant stories of the sailors and nurses working for the U.S. war effort.
The sailors, Seabees and Marines are all stuck on a small Pacific island, trying to win the war and moaning about the lack of available women in the tune “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” The song may not be politically correct these days, but it’s a heck of a great tune.
The major character among the sailors is Luther Billis, a wheeler-dealer who is making pretty good bucks creating grass skirts. Now he’s looking for a willing officer to get him over to Bali Ha’i, where he thinks he can make serious money buying and selling trinkets such as boar’s tooth bracelets to other sailors.
Agustine Welles plays Billis to the hilt, though a bit over the top. Watch for his hoot of a grass-skirted duet with nurse Nellie Forbush in their “Honey Bun” number.
To some extent, Billis is in competition with local Tonkinese entrepreneur Bloody Mary (Gigi Coddington), who has the trinket market to herself right now. Mary also has a lovely young daughter named Liat (Catrina Teruel), who performs a breathtaking, delicate and graceful “Happy Talk” number.
The nurses are there to do what nurses do. Carolyn Agan is a dynamo as Nellie Forbush, who describes herself as a “hick” from Arkansas when she meets the much older French planter Emile de Becque, brilliantly played by Robert J. Townsend. There is instant chemistry on both sides, and they fall hard for each other. De Becque performs “Some Enchanted Evening,” Nellie sings “I’m In Love with a Wonderful Guy,” and everything looks like it will turn out all right.
Meanwhile, Marine Lt. Joseph Cable (Casey Johnson) arrives from Guadalcanal and reports to Capt. George Brackett (John George Campbell). Cable has been sent to take part in a dangerous spy mission that could change the course of the war. The captain wants to get de Becque in on the mission since he knows the area. However, first the captain wants Nellie to find out about the planter’s politics and why he left France.
At this point Nellie gets cold feet and sings her decision to “Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.”
When Emile introduces Nellie to his two young children with a Polynesian woman, Nellie is so shocked that she breaks up with him. However, none of her fellow nurses believe this.
Meanwhile, Cable meets — and falls for — Mary’s daughter Liat. Will prejudice rear its ugly head again? And will his spy mission end successfully?
“South Pacific” has it all: engaging characters, great music, a good plot and even a message. San Diego Musical Theatre’s production does it proud.
Mike Buckley rose to the challenge of multiple locations with simple, movable set pieces and backdrops that indicate where the action is taking place. Michelle Miles’ lighting helps considerably, as does Kevin Anthenill’s sound design.
Randy Slovacek’s often jaunty and sometimes muscular choreography adds to the atmosphere. Janet Pitcher’s costumes and Peter Herman’s hair designs are period appropriate.
Don LeMaster’s mighty 15-member orchestra sounds wonderful from its upstairs perch.
Director Kirsten Chandler stays out of the way, keeping the wheels turning and the show moving, while also allowing time where it’s necessary.
There’s a good reason “South Pacific” has been a staple in the musical comedy canon for decades. You won’t actually go to Bali Ha’i, but you’ll have a whale of a good time.
—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.