If you’re of a certain age, musicals such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific are a part of your DNA. Based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stories about World War II, “Tales of the South Pacific,” it was an immediate hit on Broadway in 1949, winning 10 Tony awards. There also was the movie in 1958 and countless revivals, both on Broadway and off.
With Sarah Crawford serving as director and music director, Musical Theater Heritage’s venue at Crown Center is ideal for the nostalgia of “South Pacific,” with its intimate, nightclub setting and stripped down production values. The cast Thursday night was all loose-limbed and giddy, giving it a revved up, modern twist.
Ashley Pankow, who plays Nellie, relishes being the naive hick from Little Rock with her charm and Southern drawl, without being too over the top. Her voice is clear and fine, her enthusiasm and energy infectious.
At first, Christopher Sanders as Nellie’s French love interest, Emile, has something of a forced accent, a la Pepe Le Pew. But as soon as he sings, all of those thoughts vanish. His version of “Some Enchanted Evening” is absolutely stunning and goosebump-worthy. And his admiration for the music is obvious.
Other standouts include Enjoli Gavin as a sassy, sensual Bloody Mary and Justin Barron’s affable goofball Billis. And who could resist the adorable twins, Julia and Janiel Balino as Emile’s daughters, Ngana and Janette, singing “Dites-Moi” with such precision? The only weak link in the production is Adam Branson who plays Lieutenant Cable. His voice doesn’t have the same richness and vibrato as some of the others and sounds a bit flat in spots. But even he has an attractive stage presence.
The entire cast is able to spice up classics such as “There is Nothing Like A Dame,” “Bloody Mary” and “Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” with a lot of sex appeal. At the beginning of Act Two, the female chorus members reprise another jazzy, Andrews Sisters mash-up of “Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair,” incorporating titles from the other songs and even making a reference to the Kansas City Chiefs. It’s a delicious surprise.
The show goes from romantic and funny to deadly serious when Emile and Lieutenant Cable become involved in a secret mission against the Japanese. And the references to race and prejudice continue to be groundbreaking in “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” which helped the original Broadway production win a Pulitzer Prize in drama.
If “South Pacific” is perceived as a sentimental throwback to the Greatest Generation, we all need to be reminded that it was called the “greatest” for a reason. The comedy, poignancy and genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein still shine through in this production