The sound of a musical

DTC's South Pacific should be heard and not seen

Digital editing techniques in the recording studio have resulted in songs being not so much captured as assembled nowadays; choruses and verses are often pieced together, line by line, from many different sessions. What's lost in the process is any sense of urgency and momentum and suspense, everything that a well-trained human voice in a live setting can generate like no technology can. When it comes to delivering the many famous songs in the 50-year-old Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, the Dallas Theater Center's version swaggers as confidently as a definitive cast album. When any of DTC's cast opens his or her mouth to sing, there's a present waiting to be unwrapped in every voice box.

There is, however, the little matter of all those long moments between tunes, and Richard Hamburger's budget-busting production too often limps along when the actors turn to dealing with each other as characters. You're forced to ponder whether this is a weakness in the performances or in the material, and you're left to assume that both conspire for an evening of roles that are sometimes half-drawn, other times overdrawn.

This show, co-written with Joshua Logan, has led something of a charmed life ever since it premiered in New Haven in 1948; the composers had already scored big with Oklahoma! and Carousel, plus they'd corralled Broadway's sweetheart Mary Martin and Met marquee name Ezio Pinza to star in the New York premiere. Add to that James Michener's Pulitzer for the source material Tales From the South Pacific and the fact that the Allies' victory over an enemy who pretty much everyone could identify as "the enemy" (how often has that happened since?) was still buzzing in the national bloodstream. You'd have to be a Godless red not to dig this show, and even for the left-inclined, there was a dash of critical American introspection with the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," which must've infuriated some Anglo conservatives with its bold declaration of the roots of racial bigotry.

But there's little in South Pacific that's as gutsy as that one number; the racial prejudice that two of the leads confront in themselves is synthetic and undercooked. But, hey, who says a musical must be expected to battle America's history of racism and imperialism? You have to suspect, though, based on the essays contained in the program for Dallas Theater Center's show, that director Richard Hamburger and members of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization have deluded themselves into believing that this production can function as some kind of oracle for national guilt: Someone in the program even refers to the horrible slaying of Matthew Shepard. I think the case against cruel, widespread homophobia is powerful enough without enlisting Rodgers and Hammerstein posthumously.

Even if Hamburger's vision for characterization turned myopic with all these social portents, he's found a lead with terrific endurance and versatility. The director has netted a simply fabulous Nellie Forbush, in the person of Michele Ragusa, playing the "cockeyed optimist" nurse from Little Rock who falls for French planter Emile (John Wilkerson). Normally, this kind of role--plucky, lionhearted, darned adorable--would have me rooting for a kamikaze plane to fly right into the actor who plays it, but Ragusa wears her charm and befuddlement without a trace of self-consciousness. Whether talking or singing, she almost single-handedly keeps this show pointed at a destination of entertainment and sobering self-confrontation.

But when some of the other performers wrest the wheel from her, we sail into choppy theatrical waters. John Wilkerson is wrong in every possible way an actor could be wrong for the role of Emile de Becque, the Frenchman with a past who's enlisted by the Navy to infiltrate enemy lines. This fuzzily conceived, man-of-mystery part requires an actor to meet it more than halfway, but not necessarily with talent. You could have a narrow range and still pull off Emile, provided that you were handsome, roguish, charismatic--movie starrish in a Sean Connery (or, as in the film version, Rossano Brazzi) way. The schlubby Wilkerson utterly lacks such appeal, but he coasts through this show as though he thinks he does. Pretty people can sometimes get away with this kind of sleepwalking, but in Wilkerson's case, there's no compensatory vigor, no cunning about how to bring us this oversize, vapid role in a memorable way.

South African actress Tsidii Le Loka is more memorable as Bloody Mary, the black marketress whose daughter Liat (Sara Hugh-Harper) is offered up like just another souvenir to strapping American blueblood Lt. Joseph Cable (Sean McDermott). But she doesn't register for the right reasons. I'm curious to see Le Loka's performance late in the run, because she seemed to have gifts she wasn't keen on sharing opening night. She played Bloody Mary as a pop-eyed, stooped, hissing voodoo woman; really, more tense than intense, less character than caricature. "Stingy bastards!" is her spittle-spewing catch phrase, and we feel it could be an accusation directed at Le Loka. Any desires the director and producers might have had to make this South Pacific a musical about racism are undercut by this actress, who sucks all the humanity out of a deceptively unsympathetic "native" role and depicts her as just a scary conjure woman. She's simultaneously too much and not enough in one abrasively affected package. Her deficiencies swallow up the subplot about Lt. Cable and her daughter Liat. Sean McDermott as Cable looks terrific in an undershirt, and he gives the aforementioned "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" an effective workout, but too often he gives the impression that he is little more than scenery.

South Pacific is the first full-scale musical Richard Hamburger has ever directed, and he will be cut much slack because of the love audiences bring to an oft-hummed Rodgers and Hammerstein "classic." That's the thing about so many musicals that bugs the hell out of me: So often they are cocky, self-satisfied, and assured of my affection from the first note sung. Although I was familiar with much of the music, I had never seen South Pacific before, on film or stage; that will make me either an undereducated theater critic or a fresh witness, depending on how much you revere Rodgers and Hammerstein. I don't, although Hamburger and the singers he brought together make a smashing case for the cleverness and buoyancy of Rodgers' music and Hammerstein's lyrics. If only the scattered, disparate performances in this expensive show had formed a similarly coherent defense for the legendary musical partners' dramatic skills.

South Pacific runs through May 2. Call (214) 522-TIXX

Direct this
Here's a scandalous confession: The longer I stay a theater critic, the more it dawns on me what the role of a theater director is. A rather outspoken Houston stage director sent me an angry letter about a year ago, declaring that because I'd failed to credit a show's director in a rave I gave to a Dallas performance (the actor was Terry Martin in The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me, and the director was Mark Fleischer), my review was "unprintable."

I will never know who, between Martin and Fleischer, should take more responsibility for that dazzling one-man show, but I think I've begun to detect some Dallas directors' particular influence on a given play: It's not so much in the individual performances, but in the way the performers interact. Bruce Coleman of New Theater Company and Theatre Three was the first to divert my attention toward his invisible self in a play--even during an inferior show, the characters in his plays seem to know one another, to be speaking to rather than at each other. After just two plays, I'm beginning to feel the same about William Peyton, who achieves another improbable success with Lean Theater's The Road to Nirvana. Theater is rumored to be an actor's medium, but when a director can help actors understand and enliven their lines, you are forced to question who deserves the salute for an enjoyable evening.

Peyton coached Nance Watkins to give a strong performance as a monosyllabic raccoon girl in Lean's last show, Lloyd's Prayer, and here he midwifes a far different--but just as pleasurable--job from Watkins. She plays a stiff-backed, spoiled, self-aggrandizing rock star who has two movie producers--veteran Al (Thurman Moss) and greenhorn Jerry (Marc Hebert)--doing whatever she asks to option her screenplay of Moby Dick (it's her life story, and it's also about the search for a giant white phallus instead of a giant white whale).

In fact, Watkins seems more natural and comfortable within her role than either Moss or Hebert, whom we never honestly believe in their respective parts. At the same time, they spend a good part of the long first act firing one-liners back and forth at each other in a most satisfying way. If it's up to actors to play virtuoso guitar solos, directors are often delegated to play rhythm guitar: Peyton seems to provide this backbone, because Moss and Hebert quickly master their material to the extent that I had to either surrender my doubt or risk not having nearly as good a time as the other ticket-buyers had during Arthur Kopit's scatological comedy. And if you are as hungry as I am for satire on the not-satirized-enough macho genre of David Mamet, then you don't want to waive the chance to laugh this hard. Most of the audience succumbed on opening night.

Think "sitcom," not theater, and you should be just fine for the tartly funny if rather plastic performances of The Road to Nirvana. Really, that's not intended as an insult to director William Peyton and the actors; this show lacerates the cult of celebrity, and in doing so must use methods as suitably shallow and shocking as the subject. And the Lean Theater doesn't disappoint in its methodology. If you want to hear a two-hour dirty joke that doesn't get boring, take a stroll downstairs into Theatre Three's basement.

The Road to Nirvana runs through May 8. Call (214) 871-3300.

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