"South Pacific" snaps to attention at the Denver Center | SummitDaily.com

"South Pacific" snaps to attention at the Denver Center

John Moore
Denver Post Theater Critic
Special to the Daily/Peter Coombs

For the longest time, the national touring production of “South Pacific” goes about its business in appropriately militaristic fashion, a masterful but distant throwback to two times gone by: World War II and the American musical, at least the way it used to be.

It’s impressive, these rich and potent voices, singing to an uncommonly full live orchestra. But it’s also unsurprising. We may not much remember James Michener’s war story at first, but we certainly know these songs by heart: “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Bali Ha’i” and, of course, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair.”

And then, near the end of a very (very) long first act, like a shot to the bow, boom. One word is uttered – “colored” – and we snap to attention. Suddenly this old musical, the one that put the “war” in “warhorse,” is actually about something.

Until now, life on this quiet outpost in the Solomon Islands has been about sailors cracking wise, making grass skirts and plotting to get to that nearby magical island where all the native girls are being kept safe – from them. An exiled French planter falls into a predictable love with nurse Nellie Forbush, a “hick from the sticks” of Little Rock, Ark. As musicals go, all standard military issue.

But when Ensign Forbush is confronted by news that her beloved has two children from a dead native Polynesian, children she’ll be expected to raise, our heroine utters … that word. Combined with the fated love story of an impossibly handsome Navy lieutenant who can’t muster the courage to embrace a mixed-race marriage, this war, as they say, is on.

Just imagine how startling all this must have been to a skittish postwar audience desperate to believe that all enemies had been vanquished from outside our borders. But here comes this musical to tell you there is another enemy – and it’s reeking from within our own pores.

Imagine the risk in staging a Broadway musical that in 1949 dared to feature two strapping, sympathetic American military heroes, one man, one woman, both struggling with their inherent racism.

The second act of “South Pacific” suddenly doesn’t seem so old. It’s complicated, human and deeply moving. And there’s also that crowd-pleasing, patriotic war subplot, those delightful dames and the playful high jinks of Luther Billis who’s delightful, even if he does come off as an incorrigible mix of The Fonz and Vinny Barbarino.

This tour is not messing around with casting. Acclaimed bass-baritone David Pittsinger, who blew audiences away in Opera Colorado’s “Don Giovanni” and subsequent roles, also played Emile in the recent Broadway revival. On the legit stage, he shows an easygoing, even delicate charm that makes for an appealing leading man.

Read more at http://www.denverpost.com/theater/ci_15571407

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