by Clark Groome
Rodgers and Hammerstein were at the heart of what has become known as The Golden Age of the American Musical, the period between 1943 and the end of the 1960s that was begun by their “Oklahoma!” The shows in those days were all called musical comedies, a moniker that wasn’t always exactly accurate.
R&H’s “South Pacific,” for all its many comic delights, is a serious-minded look at war and prejudice. It shows how those elements came together to challenge the long-held beliefs of the show’s two principal characters.
“South Pacific” was recently given a stunning rendering at New York’s Lincoln Center, a production that also was taped for PBS. An alumnus of that production, William Michals, is now reprising his role as the French plantation owner Emile de Becque at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival on the Labuda Center’s main stage at DeSales University in Center Valley (about 3/4s of the way to Allentown, 45 minutes from Chestnut Hill, just off Route 309).
Based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” the musical focuses on the love affair between de Becque and U.S. Navy nurse Nellie Forbush (Marnie Schulenberg), a relationship that runs into trouble when Nellie discovers that Emile has two children from his marriage to their late Polynesian mother.
The show is home to some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best work: “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bloody Mary,” “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “Bali Hai,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair,” “Younger than Springtime” and “This Nearly Was Mine” among them.
The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production, which plays through July 3, is a mixed bag. Most of the performances are fine. Some of the singing, however, seemed strained on opening night. Especially problematic were Plachy’s Cable and Amy Jo Phillips’s Bloody Mary, both of whom were strong actors. They clearly have strong voices that often, disconcertingly, went flat at crucial moments.
Michals’ de Becque was fine, a strong baritone in a role typically given to an actor with an operatic voice. Schulenburg was a decent Nellie, although she seemed too sophisticated to be the hick from Little Rock she claims to be.
Lawton’s Billis doesn’t really seem like the constantly-conspiring con man he is supposed to be, although he does have some of the show’s best moments.
Directed by Dennis Razze, PSF’s “South Pacific” is a decent but never inspiring rendering of a truly great musical. Its most glaring weakness is Stephen Casey’s bland, almost paint-by-the-numbers, choreography. The seabees’ or nurses’ dance numbers should stop the show with an electric energy that if done right would be irresistible. Here those numbers were mediocre.
The PSF “South Pacific” is a tepid mounting of a timeless and almost indestructible show. Clearly the opening night audience was thrilled by what they saw. It’s too bad that they didn’t see it at its best.
For tickets to the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s production of “South Pacific,” playing through July 3 at the Labuda Center at DeSales University in Center Valley, call 610-282-9455 or visit www.pashakespeare.org