News Column

'South Pacific' dazzles on the Muny stage

July 9, 2013

YellowBrix

July 09--All kinds of things can shine at the Muny, from the giddy comedy of "Spamalot" to the sleek sophistication of "Chicago" to the innocent charm of "Peter Pan." But when the Muny mounts first-class production of a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, the effect is as magical as the reunion of lovers. These two belong together.

That was true last summer, when Rob Ruggiero directed a shimmering production of "The King and I" that starred Laura Michelle Kelly. It's true again this week in his intensely emotional treatment of "South Pacific" with the same radiant leading lady.

There's another huge plus: her marvelous costar, Ben Davis. When he sings "This Nearly Was Mine" in a voice as rich and deep as sapphires, he seems to be telling each member of the audience how much love can hurt. Such an intimate confession should make no sense in a big theater. But Davis seems to be talking right to you, and you alone.

It's a breathtaking delivery of one of the most beautiful songs in the show also gives us "Some Enchanted Evening," "Bali Ha'i," and "Younger Than Springtime." (The "South Pacific" song list could define "an embarrassment of riches.")

Kelly plays Ensign Nellie Forbush, a Navy nurse from Little Rock serving in World War Two; Davis plays Emile de Becque, a wealthy French planter. They quickly fall in love -- but can two such different people make a life together? Will the war allow them the chance to find out?

At one point Nellie decides to end things, telling her friends "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair." This is an exceptionally cheery break-up number, probably because she immediately changes her mind. In the soaring follow-up, "I'm In Love With A Wonderful Guy," Kelly positively glows -- not just vocally, but from the inside-out.

In its way, her solo is as intimate as "This Nearly Was Mine," and Ruggiero brings both performers far downstage to sing them. He lets them make the connection with the audience that such personal songs demand.

Ruggiero gives Loretta Albes Sayre, as the Tonkinese merchant Bloody Mary, and Josh Young, as Marine Lt. Joe Cable, the same kind of room for their big, lush numbers. In fact, the whole ensemble is packed with strong personalities, especially Tally Sessions as a schemer who leads the Seabees in a vivacious rendition of "There Is Nothing Like A Dame." (Thank choreographer Ralph Perkins for this number's disarming clarity.)

Though it all, music director Brad Haak and Muny orchestra control the show's emotional temperature, sensitive both to the needs of the performers and to Richard Rodgers' eloquent voice.

Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II put that voice to serious purpose in "South Pacific," a show that deals with men and women fighting a war and their own battles. The lieutenant wonders how he could marry the young woman he loves, Bloody Mary's daughter Liat (lovely Sumie Maeda); Nellie is shaken by the realization that de Becque's adorable children (Spencer Jones and Caitlin Chau) are, like their late mother, not white.

It's how we were raised, Nellie and Joe tell each other unhappily. But under the immense pressures of war and love, they discover that how you were raised isn't how you have to live. People can change. That's why "South Pacific," which debuted in 1949, isn't dated -- that, and a score that lets performers and audiences connect not only voice to ear, but heart to heart.

'South Pacific'

When--8:15 p.m. nightly through July 14

Where--The Muny in Forest Park

How much--$12-$80, plus the free seats

More info--314-534-1111; MetroTix.com

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