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Entertainment & Arts

Review: In this small-stage ‘South Pacific,’ romance and racial prejudice still float to the surface

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A French plantation owner (Ben Davis) and an American military nurse (Madison Claire Parks) spend an enchanted evening of blossoming romance as World War II rages through “South Pacific.”
(Mike Billings)

“I know what you’re against — what are you for?” That line in “South Pacific” still resonates as a call for moral clarity even when war proves an unavoidable necessity. It was a gutsy question to pose in a show that opened a mere four years after the hard-won end of World War II, when so many would have preferred forgetting to deep reflection.

With stellar lead performances and a heightened focus on the show’s gritty story lines and ethical dilemmas, an inspired Rubicon Theatre revival successfully re-envisions Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic big-stage musical for a more intimate venue. This “South Pacific” is a drama with music, with surprisingly little in the way of compromise.

Sourced from James A. Michener’s World War II-era short story collection “Tales of the South Pacific,” this particularly plot-driven book musical is structured around parallel romances and culture clashes that unfold as island-bound U.S. sailors await a tide-turning naval deployment against the Japanese fleet.

Palpable chemistry and soulful connection fuel the primary love story between nurse Nellie Forbush (Madison Claire Parks) — a self-described cockeyed optimist — and suave, world-weary plantation owner Emile de Becque (Ben Davis), an expatriate Frenchman whose outsider’s perch affords him insightful moral perspective on the war effort.

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Davis’ operatic baritone and towering stature bring show-stopping charisma to “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine.” As Nellie’s initial reservations (“I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”) give way (“I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy”), Parks fortifies her pitch-perfect soprano with a Broadway-caliber belt.

In the show’s edgy secondary narrative, a brokered act of sexual aggression with an islander girl (Jamie Yun) provokes an impassioned, identity-shattering trauma for Marine Lt. Cable (Alex Nee) on the eve of a dangerous reconnaissance mission.

Both romances founder on the shoals of deep-seated racial prejudice. Nellie’s rural Southern values collide with her discovery of Emile’s children by a deceased island bride, while Cable is torn between his love for an Asian woman and his privileged upper-class status. Nee’s tortured delivery of “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” masterfully evokes the self-loathing awareness of racism that made the song so controversial in its time and remains so tragically accurate to this day.

Threading the sobering plot lines with well-timed comic relief, Kirby Ward provides entertainment and heart in the plum role of wheeler-dealer sailor Luther Billis. Ward also serves as dance captain for the production numbers, which are serviceably choreographed by Lee Martino.

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The staging’s most apparent concession to its smaller venue is in its two-piano musical accompaniment that inevitably loses some of the score’s lush tonalities. Although skillfully performed by Brent Crayon and Jen Oikawa, the scaled-down orchestration is best suited to the solo numbers — in particular, the shimmering otherworldliness that blends seamlessly with Jodi Kimura’s superbly rendered “Bali Hai.”

Director Katharine Farmer stages a character-based drama steeped in an atmosphere of mounting wartime dread and heroic sacrifice. Mike Billings’ spectacular scenic design integrates detailed set pieces with continuous video in which idyllic tropical vistas gradually give way to images of warships and aircraft.

Like the shifting waves in those projected seascapes, the serious message of “South Pacific” still teases, retreats and, ultimately, lands with timely urgency. Although it’s easy enough to rail against things we’re against, Rodgers and Hammerstein challenged us to dig deeper and recognize what we stand for.

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Lovable schemer Luther Billis (Kirby Ward, center) enlists an ensemble of Seabees in an entertaining diversion from impending deployment.
(Mike Billings)

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘South Pacific’

Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura

When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends Dec. 23

Tickets: $25-$65

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Information: (805) 667.2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org

Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes

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The 99-Seat Beat: This weeks picks from L.A.’s small theaters

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“Emma” the musical in Anaheim

See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.

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