Paul Schoeffler as Emile de Becque and Kate Fahrner as Nellie Forbush in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” (Photo by Mark Garvin)

Paul Schoeffler as Emile de Becque and Kate Fahrner as Nellie Forbush in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” (Photo by Mark Garvin)

by Clark Groome

Back in 1949 when Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” opened on Broadway, musicals were almost always called “musical comedies.” While much of this magnificent show is very funny, it is anything but a traditional musical comedy.

“South Pacific” is set during World War II on a remote island. Its plot involves war and the horrors it brings to those involved, including the death of one of the principal characters.

The show also deals, quite openly for the time, with prejudice. Nurse Nellie Forbush is in love with Emile de Becque, a Frenchman who fled France after murdering someone. On the island he married a native woman who gave him two children. His wife died when their kids were very young.

When Nellie finds out that Emile had been married to someone who wasn’t white, their love affair is temporarily on the rocks.

Lieutenant Joe Cable, a handsome Princeton graduate who’s assigned to the island to spot for Japanese navy action, falls in love with the beautiful young Liat but also rejects the possibility of marriage because she’s not white, as he is.

What makes “South Pacific” so special is that it never gets preachy. It presents truly wonderful characters who are struggling with their feelings and with their history. This show may just be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest, although others could easily make a case for “Oklahoma!” “Carousel,” “The King and I” or “The Sound of Music.”

“South Pacific” is receiving an absolutely splendid production at the Walnut Street Theatre, where it will be spinning its musical and theatrical magic through Oct. 23.

And what musical magic it is. Just to remind you: “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bloody Mary,” “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Bali Ha’i,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right out of My Hair,” “Younger than Springtime,” “Happy Talk,” Honey Bun” and “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” are all from “South Pacific.” Quite a score, eh?

That score, and the story, are getting a generally strong production under Charles Abbott’s direction. Blessed by a spectacular set designed by Robert Andrew Kovach and lighted by Paul Black, the production is a joy to behold. Mary Folino designed the appropriate costumes.

If there was one production flaw it was in Ryan Peavey’s overly amplified sound design that often took the subtlety and balance out of the music.

The cast was, with one exception, really fine.

Kate Fahrner captured Nellie’s cockeyed optimism and feelings for de Becque perfectly. Ben Michael was a handsome and vocally talented Lt. Cable.

Disappointing was Paul Schoeffler’s de Becque. I never really believed his character, in spite of how well he sang some of the show’s most beautiful and meaningful songs.

And stealing the show were Lori Tan Chinn’s salty Bloody Mary and Fran Prisco’s delightfully scheming Luther Billis. Jeffrey Coon and Dan Olmstead did very good work in supporting roles and the ensemble was physically and vocally powerful.

What’s so special about this production is that it doesn’t, like so many revivals of classic musicals, just land on the stage with the hope it’ll draw audiences because it is “A Classic Musical.”

Because of its honesty this show seems as fresh as it must have almost 70 years ago. That coupled with the racial issues that are as current today as they were when “South Pacific” made its debut make this production a stunning, moving and entertaining evening in the theater.

For tickets call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

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