By the time the encapsulated moral of the musical in “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” springs forth in Act II of South Pacific, you are clued into the brilliance of composers and lyricists Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Not only did their collaborations set the standard for musical theater in America, but they also touched on social issues like racism and bigotry that were daring for their day.
But also on display are the undeniable erosion and dated quality that time has dealt to the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Since the works of R&H have become so tightly woven into the fabric of American culture, there is a definite uphill battle faced by many productions of their musicals to make the material feel fresh.
Just like quotes and songs from The Wizard of Oz that have become American cliché, kitsch and camp, the song standards from R&H musicals can sound hackneyed when placed back in their original context. Unless you’ve been “carefully taught” in R&H musicals while growing up, songs like “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Outta My Hair” sound more like they belong to lounge lizards and TV commercial jingles than to the musical’s characters.
Even if you’ve never seen South Pacific in any incarnation, it can feel like you already know the score backwards and forwards. And if you have seen South Pacific it was most likely in some kind of mediocre community theater or high school production. So with a production of South Pacific by Pioneer Theatre Company, the hopes are high that a professional theater can bring a 50-year-old chestnut back to life.
The prognosis? Even a nice jolt of Viagra doesn’t quite bring the musical up to muster. But there are nice touches that keep the show afloat, even though it is an old vessel.
Once again, PTC has a wonderfully lush set by George Maxwell and evocative lighting by Karl E. Haas. Although it doesn’t look like much at first (it deliberately looks high-schoolish and cheap), it is transformed in the overture to a fitting tropical paradise reminiscent of painter Henri Rousseau’s jungle dreamscapes.
In sight of recent WWII film epics (Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line) that went for gruesome realism, director Pamela Berlin’s introduction seems to deliberately prepare the audience for a make-believe vision of the Pacific Theater where soldiers break into song instead of being blasted full of bullets. And make-believe is the stance we have to take, considering the historic reality of segregated WWII military divisions would not have allowed the color-blind casting of some talented ensemble members in the production.
All of the performances are good and polished, even if they are not entirely believable. Leah Hocking brings a big amount of giggly charm as Ensign Nellie Forbush, while Robert Peterson’s booming baritone is quite appropriate to Emile de Becque. Although the sexual tension between the two isn’t completely there, they make a good go at it.
Other standouts include Emily Yancy’s grand Bloody Mary and John Cudia’s sensitive and buffed-up Lt. Joseph Cable. Hope Clark’s choreography brings in nice bursts of energy, though it sometimes feels hampered by the R&H musical formula.
Although South Pacific’s call for racial tolerance and love is still pertinent today, it feels like it was more comfortable being a part of the “greatest generation” (as it’s been dubbed by Tom Brokaw). Older audiences who love South Pacific will welcome the show like visiting an old friend; but younger ones may feel like they’ve had an overextended visit with their grandparents.
South Pacific continues through May 22 at Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1340 East. Call the PTC box office at 581-6961 for more information.