Songs still carry the show in South Pacific

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Robert Friedman

Cast members from Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s production of South Pacific perform in the show’s musical-within-a-musical — the “Thanksgiving Follies” put on to raise troop morale on the island. South Pacific also includes such timeless Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs as “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair” and “Some Enchanted Evening.”
Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography

It wasn’t a completely enchanted evening. Nevertheless, the production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific at Toby’s Dinner theater in Columbia did at times exuberantly, dramatically and tunefully evoke that mid-20th century period when America fought an all-out war and Broadway provided the country’s maximum musical expression.

The lives and times of the Navy Seabees, their officers, some attractive nurses, and a few of the natives on two Pacific islands not yet (till the end of the last act) affected by WWII action are based on James Michener’s short stories in his Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Tales of the South Pacific.

However, I found the stories of the two parallel love affairs in South Pacific so outdated as to no longer be believable. True, times were radically, racially different from today in 1949, when the play began its record run on Broadway. Still and all, the bigotry of two of the story’s main protagonists seems out of sync with their on-stage personalities.

The message of racial tolerance by Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, who wrote the book together for the musical, was progressive for the time. But I wonder if it is out of the question to give the story a more subtle tone in present-day productions.

Still, the songs! So many, with such wonderful words and music: “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Younger Than Springtime,” “Bali Ha’i,” “Cockeyed Optimist,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” “There Is Nothing Like A Dame,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” “Happy Talk,” “Honey Bun,” “A Wonderful Guy,” “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught (to Hate).” Definitely no updating needed there.

Thwarted love

The action focuses on the usually upbeat, perky nurse Nellie Forbush, who describes herself as a “hick” from Little Rock, Arkansas.

She becomes shocked when she learns that Emile de Becque, the middle-aged, self-exilled French planter with whom she falls in love, had once been married to a Polynesian with whom he fathered the two adorable mixed race children who live with him.

Nellie breaks off their relationship, believing that she can’t help herself, that racial prejudice was born in her. She does recant before curtain time, when she, her lover and the two cute kids are reunited.

Meanwhile, Lt. Joe Cable. This Princeton grad beds a native girl, Liat, at the insistent invitation of the girl’s mother, the earthy Bloody Mary, who sees a wedding on the beautiful Bali H’ai horizon.

Unfortunately, the lieutenant, who does fall for the sweet, fragile girl, also ends the affair, because he believes his hometown Philadelphia upper crust would be outraged at the pairing.

The American Seabees on the island are all cutups, and they exuberantly do their things, which include “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” and “Honey Bun,” in wonderfully, if by now rather clich├ęd, musical numbers.

Strong performances

Teresa Danskey, who plays the crucial role of Nellie (played by Mary Martin on Broadway, Mitzi Gaynor on film, and on TV by Glenn Close), brings an innocent, spirited and sweet personality to the performance. She is both shy and forthright in her big numbers, “Cockeyed Optimist” and “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair.”

The role of Bloody Mary is always is a potential show-stealer. Crystal Freeman doesn’t steal so much as solidify — you can believe that she is the hustling business woman/big mama called for in the role. And she hits the right plaintive notes of a special place when she sings the beckoning “Bali Ha’i.”

The two male leads, Russell Rinker as the independent Frenchman turned war hero, and Jonathan Helwig, as the ill-fated Lt. Cable, have fine, if not booming, baritone voices.

Rinker’s several reprisals of “Some Enchanted Evening” do not shake the rafters, but make the song a singing dialogue that goes along with the emotional context of his role.

I was disappointed in the short shrift given to “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” sung by Helwig in what felt like a shortened version, and with less emphasis than it should have been given. The song carries the musical’s essential message that racial discrimination is a result of nurture rather than nature. On the other hand, Helwig put proper feeling into the beautiful “Younger Than Springtime.”

Jeff Shankle got most of the laughs as the wild and wily Seabee Luther Billis. Robert John Biederman was officious enough as Captain Brackett, and David Boxley-Reynolds was sufficiently salty as Commander William Harbison.

Mark Minnick directed the play and its oft-times rousing choreography, while Reenie Codelksa was the musical conductor.

Toby’s theater in the round, where large food carts are parked before showtime, does not lend itself to much scenic display. Still, there were really only minimal hints of a tropical island in any of the scenes.

While South Pacific now seems more of a cultural artifact, the words and music of its songs remain alive and beautiful. 

South Pacific runs until March 20 at Toby’s Dinner Theater, located at 5900 Symphony Woods Rd. in Columbia. Doors open two hours before curtain time — 6 p.m. for evening dinner performances (5 p.m. on Sundays), and 10:30 a.m. for Wednesday and Sunday brunch matinees. There are no shows on Monday.

Tickets range from $55 to $60 for adults, depending on performance, and are $41.50 for children 12 and under at all performances.

An all-you-can-eat meal immediately precedes all performances and is included in the price of your ticket. The food is plentiful, with dinner including a large salad bar, a variety of cold salads and hot side dishes and entrees, a carving station for roast beef, ham and turkey, and concluding with a choice of rich desserts and a do-it-yourself ice cream sundae bar. The matinee brunch cuts down on the entrees and sides in favor of a variety of breakfast treats.

Specialty drinks of all types (alcoholic and not) can be ordered for additional cost. Many come with souvenir glasses.

Patrons are expected to tip the wait staff based on the full price of their ticket plus any additional items ordered. In fact, tips are the chief source of income for most of the cast members.

For more information, visit www.tobysdinnertheatre.com. To purchase tickets, call the box office at (410) 730-8311 or buy online from Ticketmaster at www.ticketmaster.com/venue/172479.