Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II have mistakenly acquired a reputation for sentimental musicals, yet this is the team that gave up shows about domestic abuse (Carousel), cross-cultural conflict (The King and I), the rise of Nazism (The Sound of Music) and racial prejudice (South Pacific).
Perhaps their misguided reputation stems from the melodic songs that fill these tough-themed musicals. Certainly there is a profusion of memorable songs in South Pacific, on view at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre through Sunday, in a beautifully sung, romantic, yet hard-edged production.
Nearly 70 years old, the show still has an unfortunate currency, as racial hatred remains rampant in our post-Obama society. Based on a couple of James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, in centers on the unlikely love story between Emile De Becque, a French plantation owner with a violent past, and a self-described “hick from the sticks,” Navy nurse Nellie Forbush. Yet it is not Emile’s confession to Nellie that he once killed a man that bothers her, but his former relationship with a Polynesian woman that produced two attractive, but brown-skinned children.
As would become one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s trademarks, there is a second, parallel love couple. A Philadelphia-bred, Ivy League-educated Marine lieutenant, Joe Cable, falls for a Tonkinese island girl, Liat, pimped to him by her entrepreneurial mother, Bloody Mary. Although he is soon smitten with her, such a relationship is bound to end badly, as Cable sings “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” a bitter declaration of acquired discrimination.
Director Gordon Greenberg (Barnum) and his talented cast do not stint on the lush, melodic tunes – “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Younger Than Springtime” and “This Nearly Was Mine” – or the more boisterous, high-spirited numbers – “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “Honey Bun.” But when it is time to lower the dramatic boom, the Maltz team undoubtedly delivers.
All of this is set against the raging war in the Pacific, as period newsreels remind up during the overture. South Pacific must have had a powerful emotional immediacy in 1949, just a few years after the end of World War II, but it has lost none of its ability to entrance today, when combat is so different and the public taste for war has changed drastically.
With the casting of Nicholas Rodriguez and Erin Davie as Emile and Nellie, director Greenberg aims for a younger South Pacific than is typical, but these two Broadway veterans handle the vocal and acting demands well. If anything, his performance is a bit stiff, but perhaps that is an intentional contrast with Davie, whose Nellie is disarmingly gangly, brimming with kinetic energy, every bit the “cockeyed optimist,” yet wary of the love she has stumbled into.
Jodi Kimura is very familiar with the role of Bloody Mary, having played her in tours of the United States and Britain, yet she brings a welcome freshness and spunk to the role. And Christian Marriner is a standout as her Navy counterpoint, wheeler-dealer Luther Billis, who pines for Nellie as well.
Choreographer Connor Gallagher comes up with athletic, macho moves for the ensemble of Navy Seabees, whose existence on the Pacific island lacks two things – combat and dames. They do eventually see combat action, but it happens offstage, conveyed by radio dispatches, muting the climactic impact.
Still, the show gets the usual first-rate design work from the Maltz crew. The ever-inventive Paul Tate Depoo III transports us around the island base and across the water to exotic Bali Ha’i, with a motif of corrugated metal. Rob Denton’s lighting bathes the sky in a palette of mood hues and Tristan Raines supplies attractive vintage costumes – some based on Catherine Zuber’s designs for the Lincoln Center revival. You have to love the amusing “Thanksgiving Follies” turkey outfits made of Life magazine covers.
From the opening downbeat, musical director-conductor Eric Alsford and his 11-piece orchestration leave no doubt that the score will be rendered expertly. Come to think of it, that is true of the entire Maltz production.
SOUTH PACIFIC, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Through Sunday, March 25. $58 and up. 561-575-2223.