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See Worthy: Curmudgeonly critic falls for Muny's South Pacific



Rogers & Hammerstein's South Pacific is too long, it throws in an unnecessary second love story and — for a show that's ostensibly forward thinking in its racial politics — it doesn't let its Polynesian characters express any views about racism. And don't even get me started on the recurring "Some Enchanted Evening" theme.

Well. One muggy night at the Muny and guess who has two thumbs and can't stop humming "There Is Nothing Like a Dame"?

Director Rob Ruggiero has concocted a frothy tropical cocktail that owes its buoyancy to a cast that zips about the stage as if performing in this stifling heat and humidity is the most fun a clothed person can have. The fabled Muny orchestra matches 'em note for note, playing the score with contagious verve.

And the dancing! "Dame" is an applied lesson in controlled power. The men's chorus rides the swells of the song, singing with strength and clarity while leaping and stomping with military precision. They linger on the racier nuances, then build to a joyous finale. Rarely is a song about sexual need performed with such style, and in such masculine fashion.

Laura Michelle Kelly and Ben Davis bring something fresh to the troubled romance between Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque. Kelly launches into the intentionally cornball "Cockeyed Optimist" with enthusiasm and sincerity, her voice subtly shaded with a Forbush-appropriate Arkansas twang. By the time she's done, you hope she'll come sit next to you rather than stuffy old Emile.

Except Emile is anything but stuffy in this production. As producer Mike Isaacson explains in his introductory notes, the idea was to bring some heat to the love story with a younger-than-called-for Emile. Davis, dashing and improbably tall on the Muny stage, ascends into the opening notes of "Some Enchanted Evening" and his sonorous baritone burnishes the cloying song till it's a molten flow of love and hope washing over Nellie. The two stand hand-in-hand at the end, and the expansive Muny stage is somehow still and intimate, a tiny bower hidden in some springtime field.

The same trick is pulled off in reverse in the second act, when Nellie discovers Emile's mixed-race children and can't overcome her prejudice. She flees from their little bower, and Davis stoops, deflated by this ugliness he has discovered in her. Now the stage is huge, and he's a castaway, small and alone on his rocky outcrop. The pernicious effect of racism is writ large in this moment: Love is lost, leaving only isolation and bitterness amid the wreckage.

Of course, Nellie and Emile reconcile and love blooms anew on that little island. Kelly and Davis sit at the table together, with those no-longer-troublesome kids between them. The couple smile and touch hands again across the table. It's a scene of domestic bliss, it happens without a word and goddamn it, I think I love South Pacific.

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