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Enchanted 'Pacific'

[whitespace] South Pacific
David Allen

Bathing Beauties: Emily Loesser (center) washes that man right out of her hair with the help of her fellow nurses.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic shines again at SJ Musical Theatre

By Heather Zimmerman

AMERICAN MUSICAL Theatre of San Jose winds up a season that explored and celebrated cultural and social differences with one of the first musicals to tackle such issues, Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, which marks its 50th anniversary this year.

Based on short stories by James Michener, the musical offers a glimpse of life on a South Pacific island during World War II. At a U.S. military unit stationed on the island, we meet Navy nurse Nellie Forbush (Emily Loesser), who has struck up a romance with the suave but older French planter Emile De Becque (Joe Vincent). Newly arrived on the island is Marine Lt. Joseph Cable (Curt Dale Clark), who struggles with the prejudices of his privileged background when he falls in love with Liat (Nicole Tung), a Polynesian woman.

There are moments when this classic musical shows its age with some broadly drawn characters; what holds up best after half a century is the music, with a spate of songs that explore timeless themes not only of love and longing but also of learning to appreciate each other's differences.

At odds with the latter theme is one of the show's central clowns: Bloody Mary (Mary Bond Davis), an island native who chatters loudly in pidgin English and peddles shrunken heads. Fortunately, Davis' rich voice helps to ground the caricature with some dignity, particularly with a beautiful rendition of the character's signature tune, "Bali Ha'i." And however outmoded the Bloody Mary stereotype may seem, that's not to say there isn't plenty in the present-day world to make the astute observations on prejudice of "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" as relevant as ever.

In the show's jubilant and sad moments alike, director Seth Reines helms a production that bursts with energy but still lounges with tropical languor, and an impressive cast really makes this well-known musical its own. It's hard to imagine a more vivacious choice for the pert Nellie than Loesser; Vincent's imperturbable yet passionate Emile makes the perfect foil for Nellie, and his vocal talents enhance the pleasure of familiar favorites like "Some Enchanted Evening."

Jamie Torcellini, who most recently appeared with American Musical Theatre as Bill Snibson in a popular production of Me and My Girl in 1997, has a natural affinity for skillful clowning, and he pulls off the role of goodhearted wise guy Luther Billis with aplomb.

The choreography at times feels a little contrived, especially in overly perky solos for Nellie and Liat. Larger dance numbers with the ensemble fare much better; the lusty sailors', uh, tribute to the female form, "There Is Nothing Like a Dame," uses the male ensemble to great effect. A scene of Polynesian dance by the dance troupe Motu'aini brings a particularly exciting charge to Cable's and Billis' long-awaited visit to the isle of Bali Ha'i.

The production design is well executed all around--Cathleen Edwards' costumes are a snapshot of the '40s, from military khaki to Emile's casually wealthy attire. The set not only evokes a sense of tropical fantasy (especially with its idyllic painted backdrops) but also recalls the film version of the musical. Joan Arhelger's lighting design complements the set well, especially in an inspired scene in which the sunlight shimmers from an unseen ocean. The transformative qualities of South Pacific, both in performance and design, aptly reflect a show that transports the audience to a remote and sometimes mystical place, but one never so removed as to escape reality.

South Pacific plays Tuesday-Thursday at 8pm (plus Wednesday, June 2, at 2pm), Friday at 8:30pm, Saturday at 2 and 8:30pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm (June 6 at 2pm only) through June 6 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $30-$45. (888/4555/SHOW)

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From the May 27-June 2, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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