Pasadena Civic Auditorium is once again the home of a subscription series of musicals, this time from Dallas Summer Musicals. The first offering plugs two worthy stars, John Cullum and Jodi Benson, into an otherwise pedestrian rendition of "South Pacific," staged by Norb Joerder.
Benson isn't as conventionally cute as some Nellie Forbushes, but she's strong and winsome. She moves adeptly from giddy adventurer to confused American in her key transition at the end of the first act. From a seat near the front, she appeared overly made up for an ensign on an island during World War II, but maybe that's for the benefit of those in the back rows of this cavernous hall.
Cullum initially looks rather slight and faintly comical in the duds designed by Tommy Bourgeois--a problem, considering we're supposed to be as impressed as Nellie is by his suave charisma. But he looks better in later outfits, he's got the French accent and attitude down, and he dispatches his considerable vocal resources with canny control.
Michael Gerhart's Lt. Cable has a stern, tough-guy expression from the get-go, so we don't see his winning boyishness, but he also has a soaring voice and a well-sculpted torso. Armelia McQueen's Bloody Mary and Stephen Berger's Luther Billis go skillfully if predictably through the usual paces.
James Noone's set, originally designed for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and lit here by Jeff Davis according to all the cliches, looks tired. The generic islands on the painted backdrops don't begin to suggest that one of them could be, to borrow a phrase from the Oscar Hammerstein II-Richard Rodgers score, "your special island." Emile's plantation home is sketchy and threadbare. No water is apparent in the hair-washing scene. Lt. Cable's island idyll occurs against plain, green fabric that not only fails to sweep us up in his romance with young Liat but even allows us plenty of opportunity to think about the less flattering implications of this alliance.
If, in this 50th anniversary year for "South Pacific," anyone is about to rethink the show for a first-class revival (as A.J. Antoon did, to a certain extent, for a 1985 production at the Music Center), a few hard questions about the Cable-Liat narrative should be asked. Is Cable's ultimate inability to wed Liat based solely on racism, as we're supposed to believe? Maybe he also realizes that a lifetime commitment should be grounded in something more substantial than a "younger than springtime" look that will fade and a mutual enjoyment of "Happy Talk" finger-clicking.
"South Pacific," Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St. Tonight-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $21-$56. (213) 480-3232 or (714) 740-7878. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.