'There is nothin' like a dame'

Gordon Jones
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Premiering in the wake of the Second World War, almost half a century ago, "South Pacific" was revived on Broadway earlier this year, as well as being turned into a film - again. Forty-nine years is evidently a sufficient lapse of time to beget deja-vu nostalgia.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein blockbuster musical is set on a south-sea island, populated in the main by American sailors and marines stationed there during the war against Japan. Fortunately, the Japanese do not seem at first to be aware of their presence, so U.S. personnel are spared the discomforts of combat, allowing them to get on with the serious business of singing, dancing, chasing military nurses and discovering there is nothin' like a dame.
The comic torque of the show is provided by Tonkinese hustler, Bloody Mary (Tessa Crosbie), a male chorus of sailors, seabees and marines, led by Bruce Brenton's wise-cracking scam artist, Luther Billis, and a large female chorus doing duty as hard-to-catch nurses or possibly more compliant native girls.
Against this background, two love relationships are developed, the primary romance being between a mature and sophisticated French planter, Emile de Becque, and Nellie Forbush, a vivacious, but naive nurse from Little Rock, Ark. A secondary liaison is established between a young army lieutenant, Joe Cable (tenor Trevor Bennett) and Bloody Mary's graceful young daughter, Liat (Holy Heart student Maria Lacey).
Misunderstandings develop, as they are wont to do in prenuptial relationships, so that in Act II both male suitors volunteer for a dangerous mission behind (offstage) enemy lines. Their mission changes the course of history and American military personnel finally get off the island and into the (offstage) war, as their base is chaotically evacuated. Only one of the heroes of the mission returns to effect final reconciliation and reuniting of sweethearts.
Exposition and development of this libretto are deliberate and leisurely, attributes that were accentuated on opening night by slow pacing of action and frequent set changes. Since the heyday of "South Pacific," audiences have become acclimatised to faster-moving and harder-hitting musicals, while the book of this show ambles towards its climax.
However, the score features an effective balance of catchy novelty numbers and sentimental lyrics. The first category includes amusingly executed versions of "There is Nothin' Like a Dame" (Brenton and male chorus), Nellie and the female chorus's "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," Bloody Mary and Liat's "Happy Talk," and the hilarious burlesque dance number that opens Act II, performed by the female chorus accompanied by Brenton in drag.
On the other side of the street, it is hard to gainsay well-rendered and poignant ballads like Emile and Nellie's "Some Enchanted Evening," Emile's "This Nearly Was Mine," Lt. Cable's "Younger than Springtime," and Bloody Mary's haunting "Bali Ha'i."
The show features capable acting and singing, although choreography is not always equally sophisticated. Jim Healey's Emile is poised and suave in characterisation and is possessed of a resonant bass-baritone singing voice. He is paired with Kiersten Noel's limpid and good-natured Nellie Forbush, a musically self-proclaimed cockeyed optimist. Bennett's Lt. Cable and Lacey's Liat are sensitive and believable.
But the show-stealing audience favourites - as I suspect in every performance of this show ever staged - were Crosbie's flamboyantly outrageous Bloody Mary and Brenton's irrepressible Luther Billis. These two were given a stiff challenge, though, by two diminutive performers of the song that quietly opens and closes the show, "Dites-Moi," sung by Emile's very young Polynesian son and daughter, played by Caitlin and Colin Harte, students at Holy Cross Elementary.
Directed by Tols Barrington, with vocal direction by Susan Quinn, orchestral direction by Grant Etchegary and choreography by Pamela Pittman, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" continues its run at the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre until Saturday, starting at 7.30 p.m. and finishing (with one intermission) at 10.30 p.m.
The production is sponsored by the Quidi Vidi Rennies River Development Foundation and the St. John's Rotary Club. Tickets are $25 and $20.50.

Organizations: Bennett's, Quidi Vidi Rennies River Development Foundation, Rotary Club

Geographic location: South Pacific, Broadway, Japan U.S. Little Rock, Ark St. John's

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