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Theater Review : Long Beach ‘South Pacific’ Downplays Sentimentality

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When it comes to musicals, everything old is new again. “Carousel,” “Show Boat” and “Damn Yankees” are only three of the many Broadway chestnuts radically rethought, refurbished and remounted in recent seasons.

But when it comes to “South Pacific,” that old Rodgers & Hammerstein coconut keeps bouncing along in revival like a cockeyed optimist. No double-barreled reconsiderations. No major rewrites. Not even significant retouching.

You can always count on some producer to put it up in its more-or-less pristine form, as though a season without World War II Seabees and Navy nurses on a Polynesian island would constitute theatrical deprivation.

This time the Long Beach Civic Light Opera has come to our aid with an ambitious, full-bodied revival starring Sandy Duncan as Nellie Forbush, a provincial young ensign from Little Rock, Ark., who can’t help falling in love with the island’s wealthy Frenchman, Emile de Becque, a worldly plantation owner played by Michael Nouri.

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The production, which opened Wednesday at the Terrace Theatre, relies less on the dramatic pull of their May-December romance than on the nostalgic charms of a romantic score filled with substance as well as feeling. It not only captures a time more innocent than our own but appeals to our common humanity across the years.

Few Broadway musicals can match the songs of “South Pacific” for their beguiling tunes and meaningful lyrics. Whether addressing such varied subjects as love at first sight (“Some Enchanted Evening”), race prejudice (“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”) or lost possibilities (“This Nearly Was Mine”), they speak a rare yet simple language.

*

Duncan gives a lively, first-rate performance. She exudes sincerity. Her singing is stylish, her dancing limber and polished. Nouri more than holds his own. His bearish presence both as an actor and singer makes a warm match for her gamin-like personality. He anchors Duncan with tender strength.

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Not that director Robert Iscove allows the show to get preachy or wear its melodious heart on its sleeve. At least not too visibly. He goes for comic energy at every turn, which dissipates the sentimental.

He also injects an atmosphere of realism through Douglas D. Smith’s kaleidoscopic screen projections. They are overlayed like a collage on a see-through scrim or on a solid backdrop and combined with live action to suggest the aura of the ‘40s. For all its innocence, we see a world at war.

The show has weak spots: stilted dialogue, wooden acting in secondary roles, a tendency to sag between musical numbers.

But the most glaring flaw is Mitchell Anderson’s weak performance as Joe Cable, the Princeton-educated lieutenant who falls in love with the Tonkinese girl Liat.

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The pathos of Cable’s romance ought to lend the show added poignancy. His love for Liat is doomed, after all, because he feels hostage to white racism.

While the relationship between Cable and Liat is never easy to bring off without seeming contrived or patronizing, here it is wholly undeveloped and uninvolving.

Pat Suzuki plays the Tonkinese peddler Bloody Mary with animation to spare in a crowd-pleasing role that is, as usual, more caricature than character. Steve Witting offers a serviceable Luther Billis, chief Seabee.

Technically, the show has the advantages of a male chorus with a big sound, an imaginative scenic design, rich lighting and a well-conducted orchestra.

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* “South Pacific,” Terrace Theatre, 300 Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends May 22. $16-$38. (310) 435-7605. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes. Michael Nouri: Emile de Becque

Sandy Duncan: Nellie Forbush

Pat Suzuki: Bloody Mary

Steve Witting: Luther Billis

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Mitchell Anderson: Lt. Joseph Cable

James Noah: Captain Brackett

Dan Payne: Commander Harbison

Heidi Lucas: Liat

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A Long Beach Civic Light Opera presentation. Written by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics). Book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan. Adapted from “Tales of the South Pacific” by James A. Michener. Directed and choreographed by Robert Iscove. Music direction Jack Lee. Scenic design Bradley Kaye. Costume design Jef Billings. Lighting design Paulie Jenkins. Sound design Jon Gottlieb and Philip G. Allen. Hair/makeup design Elena Breckenridge. Projection design Douglas D. Smith. Stage manager Susan Slagle.


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