South Pacific struggles with modern meanings

CJ Eldred and Manna Nichols

CJ Eldred and Manna Nichols

The Guthrie Theater's South Pacific program notes make much of the fact that, when it premiered in 1949, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical was bold in its unambiguous endorsement of two interracial romances. Certainly so, but the fact remains that it's a show where the women of color who are involved in those two romances are in one case dead and in the other case near-mute, while the big anti-racism number goes to a white guy. In 2016, is this really the musical you want to stage as your marquee summer attraction?

Guthrie Theater

The Guthrie decided yes, and so it is that the Wurtele Thrust stage carries us off to the seductive island of Bali Ha'i, where a bamboo fantasy suite slides in from stage right to accommodate the illicit embrace of American officer Joseph Cable (CJ Eldred) and his Tonkinese lover, Liat (Manna Nichols).

It's World War II, and the Allied forces deployed against the Japanese include Ensign Nellie Forbush (Erin Mackey), who's being swept off her feet by Emile de Becque (Edward Staudenmayer), a French planter with two half-Polynesian children he decides not to mention to Nellie until after he proposes marriage.

Joseph Haj directs, the first time he's done so with a production created specifically for the Guthrie during his young tenure as artistic director. The show is warm and detailed, but feels cautious, and suffers from a lack of charisma where it's most needed. The play shines in moments of comic characterization, so much so that our attention keeps getting pulled away from the bland leads.

There's zero chemistry between the stiff Staudenmayer and Mackey, whose Nellie is the kind of charmingly awkward girl that all the nice boys in class have crushes on because she seems non-threatening. Eldred embodies Cable as a kind of Captain America (or in this case, Lieutenant): noble of visage, good of intention, and waxed of chest.

Jimmy Kieffer is left to steal the show as horny, wisecracking seabee Luther Billis. In a production that's well-stocked with limber and likable supporting actors, the upbeat ensemble numbers (precisely choreographed by Daniel Pelzig) are much more successful than the tender ballads.

The musical's most controversial character from today's standpoint is Bloody Mary, the enterprising local merchant who speaks with a pronounced accent and waves shrunken heads around. Played by the appealing Christine Toy Johnson, this Bloody Mary is much less broadly caricatured than most: She's someone the Americans are laughing with, not at. It's hard to jibe this sympathetic Bloody Mary, though, with the hard-bitten woman in straitened circumstances who needs to manipulate her daughter's potential suitors.

While there's much that works in this South Pacific, ultimately this production fails to capture the musical's majestic sweep. It also won't appease the show's detractors, though not for lack of trying.


South Pacific 
Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
Through August 28; 1.877.44.STAGE