The sound of a musical

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.

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Jimmy Fowler