For all the considerable advance publicity regarding the casting of Olympic medalist Cathy Rigby in the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera's revival of "South Pacific," the production's most compelling attraction has nothing to do with gymnastics.
Roy Alan Wilson's impassioned performance as Emile de Becque, the embittered French expatriate plantation owner who turns reluctant hero, proves a force to be reckoned with in its rare combination of operatic-quality singing, charisma and finely nuanced acting.
Such qualities are very much needed to keep "South Pacific" afloat: It's been 46 years since the premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein's World War II musical, and the plot line has accumulated its share of rust and barnacles.
Even during the overture, director Charles Ballinger tries to compensate with a plunge into period sensibilities. As newspaper headlines and war photos are projected on giant screens, Elise Unruh's orchestra lushly cycles through the themes that have become hummable pop favorites--"Bali Ha'i," "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy" and, of course, "Some Enchanted Evening."
But it's Wilson's love-smitten de Becque who reaches past nostalgia and remembrance to bring immediacy to the Granada Theatre production.
Not that Cathy Rigby lacks presence as the object of his affections, Navy nurse Nellie Forbush. Perky and appealing, she's convincingly swept off her feet by de Becque's charm and rugged individualism. But the complexities of the role exceed Rigby's still-maturing acting abilities.
Nellie's later repugnance upon learning that de Becque has sired two Polynesian children seems formulaic rather than heartfelt, blunting the show's hard-hitting meditation on racial intolerance. (It's left for Coke Morgan as the immature lieutenant and Akane Nelson as an island beauty to further the theme in their ill-fated romance).
Disappointingly, the staging doesn't play to Rigby's athletic strengths. Joel Ferrell's choreography, despite the occasional somersault, is downright clunky and graceless. In place of fluid movements, the company frequently seems to be moving through static poses. The second act talent show sequence--the black hole of every "South Pacific" production--is particularly deadly.
On the bright side, supporting performances of note include Rose Anna Vitetta's boisterous Bloody Mama, Gene Brundage's comically brusque Capt. Brackett and Fred Lehto's wheeler-dealer Luther Billis, quite touching in his loyalty to Nellie.
The production's lavish sets lend a suitably exotic backdrop, but to completely resuscitate this warhorse, the love story needs to be absolutely riveting through all of its twists and turns. Not impossible, as last season's memorable staging by PCPA Theaterfest proved. But this one comes up a few coconuts short, rendering it an enjoyable, if less-than-enchanted, evening.
* WHAT: "South Pacific."
* WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays, Sundays and 3 p.m. June 7. Through July 2.
* WHERE: Granada Theatre, 1216 State St., Santa Barbara.
* HOW MUCH: $15-$35.
* CALL: For reservations: (800) 366-6064.