South Pacific at Ordway Center for the Performing Arts

South Pacific at the Ordway - Photo by Peter Coombs

By Janet Preus

The Lincoln Center Theater’s touring production of South Pacific, now running at the Ordway in St. Paul, offers a slightly edgier take on the war-in-paradise story. Certainly one of the best shows ever written in this genre, this production does a classy job of updating the staging, movement and technical presentation while preserving the integrity of the original (and I do mean original) script and music.

A first-rate cast was more than up to the task of delivering songs that are pretty much a part of our cultural vocabulary. Some Enchanted Evening simply must be sung by a real baritone, and it was. Rod Gilfry as Emile de Becque is a truly wonderful singer, though I was distracted by the quaver in his speaking voice. Carmen Cusack playing Nellie Forbush came alive with I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair, backed by her totally charming nurse-cohorts.

Matthew Saldivar as Luther Billis, the most completely convincing character on the stage, led his fellow Seabies in a lively and athletic There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame. Saldivar is a heavyweight. The unbelievably luscious voice award goes to Anderson Davis playing Lt. Joseph Cable. Younger Than Springtime was indescribably lovely.

I have to take issue with the interpretation of the Bloody Mary character (Keala Settle). I think it was right to make her sleazy and cunning, but she was so “dark” – particularly given the strange teen-groupie-at-a-heavy-metal-concert makeup – that it was sort of like having Ozzy sing Happy Talk. And she never smiled – even with “you like?” I did not like.

I also was frownish about Capt. George Brackett (Gerry Becker) whose shouting was not attached to a believable character doing it, and his sidekick, Cmdr. William Harbison (Peter Rini) who had no character to speak of. These plum little roles seemed to have gotten tossed aside. And as perfectly executed as this show was, I wasn’t seeing sparks fly between the couples whose love interests power the plot. Really, the war was primarily a backdrop for a far more personal story. Rogers and Hammerstein knew this.

This is a great musical, done with real style and skill. I would just rather be moved than impressed.

South Pacific runs through May 16.

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