Robert Townsend and Carolyn Agan in "South Pacific." Photo courtesy of San Diego Musical Theatre
Underlying the boisterous good time that is the 1949 World War II musical South Pacific is the anti-racism subtext that ensures the relevance of this Broadway warhorse written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, with a book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan. It’s still jarring when, near the end of Act One, until-then darling Ensign Nellie Forbush refers with extreme prejudice to her lover’s first wife as having been “colored.” It remains sad that Marine Lieutenant Cable decides he can’t wed the Tonkinese woman he loves because of what his family would think. And with all the iconic songs of South Pacific’s score, including “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Younger Than Springtime” and “Bali Hai,” the brief one indicting racial prejudice, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” lingers too.
All this said, South Pacific is not a preachy show. Audiences like those at the Horton Grand Theatre downtown continue to be moved by its two love stories and roused by its island-happy dancing and hi-jinx. San Diego Musical Theatre’s production directed by Kristen Chandler is true to both the thoughtful and the diverting sides of this work based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific.” The orchestration of Don LeMaster fully embodies every swelling melody of South Pacific’s ballads while setting just the right pace for its jauntier moments, Among the cast of more than 20, Carolyn Agan shines brightest when the “little hick” from Little Rock is proclaiming herself “A Cockeyed Optimist” or trying to “Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.’ Her expression of Nellie’s ambiguity of conscience is less credible. Robert J. Townsend has the pipes for the romantic Frenchman Emile de Becque whom Nellie loves, but, fair to Townsend or not, he’ll make no one forget Ezio Pinza (the original on Broadway) or Brian Stokes Mitchell, so stunning in a 2006 Carnegie Hall concert version of South Pacific.
The featured comic players, Agustine Welles as Seabee Luther Billis and Gigi Coddington as island maven Bloody Mary, entertain mightily, especially Welles in drag during the strutting “Honey Bun.”
South Pacific may seem old-fashioned today. But those who see it, whether for the first time or for the fifth, should heed its still-crucial lessons. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 5/2/18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.