By 2013 standards, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific would seem a quaint reminder of bygone Broadway’s grandeur. Its gangly seabees drool over dames. Its female characters, except for the audacious Bloody Mary, live for love. Its little slice of World War II is bathed in the island aroma of Bali Ha’i. So why is it so hard to resist this old warhorse? Simple: the songs. You can have Nellie Forbush’s silly “A Cockeyed Optimist” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man,” but South Pacific’s rousing numbers for its gang of seabees, “There is Nothin’ Like A Dame” and “Bloody Mary,” are good-natured fun. “Some Enchanted Evening” may be a show-tune cliché, but it still oozes amour, and the wistful ballad “This Nearly Was Mine” can moisten the eyes of the most stubborn stoic. Of course in the case of the latter two, you need a worthy Emile DeBeque. You need an operatic baritone who brings lung power and tender passion to the role of South Pacific’s love-bewitched French plantation owner.
The Welk Theatre’s got such an Emile DeBeque in Randall Dodge, a veteran of the Escondido company’s The Fantasticks and The Pirates of Penzance. Worthy of a backing orchestra larger than the Welk production can accommodate (its ensemble numbers four – keyboards, percussion, violin and reeds), Dodge makes the Welk’s South Pacific pure romantic escapism. Vocal performances by Hannah M. James as Nellie, the Navy nurse from Little Rock who loves DeBeque, and Benjamin Lopez, as the smitten (by island girl Liat) Marine Lt. Cable, are stellar as well, and Brenda Oen is a boisterous Bloody Mary.
In spite of its leisurely pace, South Pacific’s parallel love stories unfold without allowing for development of any particular chemistry between the couples (Nellie and DeBeque, and Cable and Liat), Today, as in 1949 when the show debuted on Broadway, we are asked to accept love at first sight, across a crowded room, as “Some Enchanted Evening” suggests, or on an enchanted island as regards Liat and the lieutenant. We do because it’s Rodgers & Hammerstein. To quibble would be the act of a 2013 cynic.
It’s too early in the new year for that. Let Bali Ha’i and those in its spell have their illusions.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat