Escondido, CA---If you’ve not seen Randall Dodge in “The Pirates of Penzance”, “The Fantastics”, “Annie Get Your Gun”, “The Sound of Music” and a host of other musicals in and around San Diego, I suggest you high tail it up to the Welk Resort Village Theatre in Escondido to see and hear this fine and capable actor with a voice (and I say this unhesitatingly) with vocal chords the likes of Italian opera singer Ezio Pinza (although Pinza was a bass and Dodge is a bass baritone) playing the role that Pinza owned on Broadway, in the Rogers and Hammerstein II 1949 musical “South Pacific”, that of French plantation owner Emile DeBeque one of the two male leads in this racially charged musical. (Pinza went on to receive the Tony in 1950 for Best Lead Actor in a Musical)
Oscar Hammerstein II and Josh Logan (book) and Richard Rogers (music) musical play (the first of the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals produced by Rogers and Hammerstein themselves) was adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Tales of the South Pacific” by James A. Michener. It opened on Broadway in 1949 to rave reviews.
In his review, Brooks Atkinson of the Times went on to say that ‘If the country still has the taste to appreciate a masterly love song, “Some Enchanted Evening” ought to become reasonably immortal’. Sixty odd years later and being the consummate romantic that I have always claimed to be and after listening to Dodge sing it at least three different times in the Welk’s now production, I would have to second that proposal.
The story takes place, as you might have guessed, on two Pacific Islands during World War II where American sailors and their Seabees were stationed. And here is where reality and Broadway meet as we trace the antics of the bored Seabees who deal in makeshift goods sold and bartered to them by the ever large presence of ‘Bloody Mary’ (an off again on again convincing Brenda Oen) who lures them to her island, the forbidden island of Bali Ha’i. (“Bali Ha’i” and “Happy Talk”).
The centers of interest on the main island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific are nurse Nellie Forbush (a more than formidable Hannah M. James) and local plantation owner Emile DeBeque who meet, fall in love (“A Cockeyed Optimist”) and are confronted with a number of obstacles not the least of which is the fact that BeBeque has two children, that she did not know about, born to his now deceased wife. She was (horror of horrors) Polynesian.
The fact that the children only speak French (BeBeque fled France as a teenager under dubious conditions) is not a major concern but the fact that their skin is a darker shade than hers, has Nellie in a tailspin. (“I’m Gonna Wash That Man”) She hails from Little Rock, Arkansas and that would be a stab in the back for her family to take.
Running along on a second track, Blood Mary has a young daughter Liat (Joanna Tsang) on Bali Ha’i that she wants the newly arrived on the island, Lt. Cable (beautifully voiced Benjamin Lopez) to meet and eventually marry (“Younger Than Springtime”). Cable another American; he’s from Middle America and claims at first that there is a girl ‘back home’. After falling for and being lulled into thinking he might marry Liat, he vehemently backs off claiming he could never marry a Tonkinese girl because of his family’s prejudices (“You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”)
Into this romantic pot are a few side bars with a Thanksgiving Day Show that the crew and nurses put together (“There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame”) with the very talented Shaun Leslie Thomas in the coveted role of Billis the wheeler/dealer Seabee who straps on two good sized coconuts around his chest, a grass skirt, loads of makeup, a wig and does his hula number to lots of laughs. A seven-member male dance group whoops it up in the background giving the appearance of a holiday fun night. (Ray Limon does some fine choreographing)
And on a serious note, some off island spying and official Navy business is taking place with Cable and DeBeque teaming up to help locate the enemy presence, which at that time was Japanese air force. Theatrical Productions who are credited for the sets have created a small corner of the stage as the Commanding Officer’s quarters where we listen to a short wave radio transmitting the voice of DeBeque giving Captain Brackett (Michael Prohaska) the secret info he needs.
To say that “South Pacific” is a gem would be to underestimate the importance of the groundbreaking topics covered in this musical play. True, the music and score are breathtaking and contain some of the best of the best of this musical genre. The lyrics are more than relevant to move the story forward without it having a huge chorus of men and women dancing through the big numbers that, when left on its own, more than conveys the emotional and humorous ties to the overall messages.
But just look, for example, at some of last year’s productions here in our fair city dealing with racial issues: “Parade”, “Scottsboro Boys”, “Allegiance” (ironically the issues dealing with the Japanese-American community dating back to WW II when Japan invaded Pearl Harbor, the very same war talked about in “South Pacific”), “Kita Y Fernanda”, “Tortilla Curtain” and Blood and Gifts”. One might conclude that the Rogers and Hammerstein II musical play set the ground work for plays of this caliber to be successful. Also, think “Miss Saigon”. Others I’m sure will come to mind.
Director Josh Carr has about as fine as cast as seen in some time at The Welk Village Theatre. The chemistry between Dodge’s DeBeque and James’s Forbush is convincing but other aspects of their characters, especially the overreaction of James when she discovers that BeBeque was once married to an Islander is too far off the mark and too school girlish. And while the characters convince especially in the vocal department, the transition from introduction to ‘love at first sight’, particularly between Lt. Cable and Liat are a far stretch of the imagination and difficult to digest. The show’s long run might offer an opportunity for an about face in these aeras.
Justin Gray leads a trimmed down four member orchestra from the pit (a pet peeve) that begs to filled in with other instruments that would definitely enhance a show like this. Jennifer Edwards is credited for the lighting that is fine but shame on Sherrie Diaz for allowing some sloppy looking military uniforms in varying degrees of non-uniformity to make it to the final cut. In a city teaming with military personnel there is no excuse for Lt. Cable to have trousers bunched up at the ankles that never would have passed muster at any base.
“South Pacific” has not been seen on our local stages for some time now. This might be a good chance to catch a glimpse of this ground breaking musical play warts and all. The glorious sounds coming from Dodge, the underlying message so current now and some on stage fun with the likes of Shaun Leslie Thomas will make it all worthwhile.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: through March 17th
Organization: Welk Theatre San Diego
Production Type: Musical
Where: 8860 Lawrence Welk Drive, Escondido, CA 92026
Ticket Prices: email@example.com