After multiple encounters with "South Pacific"—in concert versions, on Broadway, and in regionals—the thing that struck me most in seeing it in the satisfying production at Beef & Boards (where it runs through Oct. 4), is the humanity of the piece.
That’s not to undercut the jaw-dropping quality of the score (a gentleman at a neighboring table not-so-quietly announced “I know this one” before just about every tune), the crisp characters, or the talents of those in the cast. But I can’t think of another book musical this romantic, tense, funny and exciting in which there’s not a villain to be found.
Yes, Bloody Mary manipulates a match for her daughter. Yes, Luther Bills causes trouble. Yes, there’s a stern commander. And, yes, the French planter Emile De Becque has his moments of "Casablanca"-like doubt about getting involved in the war.
But the real villain here is an idea: racism. And if you want a sign that this was a gutsy subject for a big Broadway musical in 1949, just look at how carefully the show weaves its most overt message song, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," into its big second act lost-love ballad "This Nearly Was Mine." There's not a solid break there to give time for the audience to applaud the former (or not) making the song and effective gut punch that haunts—in a good way—the rest of the show. Those Rodgers and Hammerstein guys were smart in addition to being talented.
As in other productions of "South Pacific," the second act isn't quite as strong here as the first (and Beef & Boards' version seems sharply truncated, even with an overextended comic bit added for Billis. The running time for the most recent Broadway revival was three hours. Beef & Boards clocked in at well under 2 1/2 hours including a lengthy intermission). And a stronger sense of romance would have helped. That would require not just a willingness to slow down the action but also a commitment to generating more heat.
Still, director Elizabeth Stark and choreographer Ron Morgan are careful not to clutter the romantic numbers and not to let any of the more rambuctious ones overstay their welcome. Case in point, the comedic centerpiece of the second act, "Honey Bun," which actually feels like a show that a group of seabees and nurses would actually stage. The number is often turned into a crowd-pleasing but unrealistic showcase for whoever is playing Nellie Forbush. Here, bringing the rest of the seamen and nurses into the act accentuates the fun.
And while he doesn't get to sing, I feel compelled to give a shout out to Bob Payne, who adds an air of authenticity and gravitas to the part of Capt. Brackett, the first time I actually took note of anyone in that part.