FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Michelle Jennings and Louis Otey are among the excellent cast of Hawaii Opera Theatre's "South Pacific" production.
HOT’s ‘South Pacific’ is enchanting
Although "South Pacific" is one of the most popular American musicals of the past century, contemporary revivals face daunting challenges. The show has been so well known for so long that the cast must live up to almost impossibly high expectations. Not only must the male leads have powerful operatic voices and be convincing actors, but others on stage face comparison to the cast of the popular 1958 film adaptation.
Presented by Hawaii Opera Theatre:
On stage: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday
Place: Blaisdell Concert Hall
Tickets: $20 to $75; $10 children
There are other issues: Does the director stay true to the original script with its use of the standard wartime term for Japanese forces, or bowdlerize it in compliance with modern notions of political correctness?
Hawaii Opera Theatre's "South Pacific" is at least the fifth local staging of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic in recent memory. It is also, overall, the best. With one exception, and that in an area that has nothing to do with the cast or conductor Michael Ching's direction of the score, HOT stage director Karen Tiller makes all the right choices.
Ching and his musicians do a magnificent job with Richard Rodgers' timeless melodies, while the work of the unidentified sound designer ensures that Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics can be appreciated throughout.
The cast is excellent.
Louis Otey (Emile de Becque) is first among equals with his portrayal of the mysterious French planter who falls in love with a naive American nurse half his age. Otey stakes his claim to the role with his half of "Twin Soliloquies" and takes possession of it with "Some Enchanted Evening." There's never a question of his being right for the part, and he is perfectly in character in all respects. Otey is "on" even when de Becque is an onlooker; he captures every nuance of de Becque's bewilderment in the final scene of Act I, and makes "This Nearly Was Mine" a dramatic highlight in Act II.
Otey's rich, full baritone does justice to numbers first performed by Italian opera star Ezio Pinza on Broadway, and he also looks the part. It isn't necessary for the HOT audience to accept an actor with an anachronistic beard playing a dashing Frenchman of the 1940s.
Kip Wilborn (Lt. Joe Cable, USMC) is likewise successful as the officer willing to risk his life behind Japanese lines but unable to commit to his teenage Tonkinese girlfriend. Wilborn sings "Younger Than Springtime" twice -- first as a anthem to love, later as a dirge to love lost -- and captures the full emotional spectrum of each.
Wilborn makes "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" the pivotal number it must be in addressing the tragedy of racism and ethnic prejudice in American society.
Michelle Jennings (Nellie Forbush) is a perfect fit as the optimistic young nurse from Little Rock, establishing herself as our heroine with her first number. She gets excellent support from the female ensemble in her two big beach numbers in Act I, and from Curt Olds (Luther Billis) in "Honey Bun," the one big, bright comic number in Act II.
U'ilani Kapuaakuni captures the fragile innocence of a teen child-woman with her silent performance as Liat, and Marlene Sai makes a memorable HOT debut as Bloody Mary.
Tony Young (Stewpot), Daniel James Kunkle (the Professor), Andrew Doan (Capt. Brackett) and Lenny Klompus (Cmdr. Harbison) contribute in major supporting roles. Klompus' "day job" on Gov. Linda Lingle's staff is referenced with an added line about the possibility that de Becque might be a Democrat. It's a very rare instance in which adding a local reference doesn't detract from the show.
The same can't be said for the decision to bring the flow of the story to an abrupt halt by adding a lengthy Tahitian dance segment just before Cable and Billis arrive on Bali Hai. The dancers perform for five long minutes, then the story resumes with the conventional "festival" scene. Adding a few dancers to the scene would have been OK, but stopping the story cold for gratuitous Tahitian dancing is a bad idea.