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See This Play: “South Pacific”

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To paraphrase a song from “South Pacific,” there is nothing like a Rodgers & Hammerstein show. Don’t get me wrong—I love contemporary theater, too, but a classic older musical like “South Pacific” is an entirely different experience. And a worthwhile one at that. What’s perhaps most amazing about this show in particular is that it is as relevant now as it was 60 (!) years ago.

In case you haven’t seen “South Pacific” or the (admittedly kind of crappy) film, the story is fairly straightforward: bright-eyes Southerner Nellie Forbush is stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. There, she meets charming French plantation owner Emile de Becque. And then there’s the dashing Lt. Cable, who falls for Bloody Mary’s beautiful daughter Liat. Both relationships are challenged by the harsh realities of racism and war. I won’t spoil the ending, but um, it’s not the happiest musical ever.

It is, however, one of the best. The score still holds up after six decades—many of these songs have become standards, and with good reason. “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Bali H’ai” are incomparably gorgeous. “A Wonderful Guy” and “Younger Than Springtime” are great romantic numbers. And “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”—well, that one’s kind of silly. But it’s still fun.

One of the most significant additions (or re-additions) is the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” a bitter condemnation of racism that was excised from the original show and added back into the revival. It’s an important number, adding a conscience to the musical that was previously missing. Sung by Lt. Cable, it also fleshes out his character, making him ultimately more sympathetic.

The performances are all solid: Rod Gilfry has the perfect operatic tone for Emile. Carmen Cusack is a bubbly Nellie. But a show like “South Pacific” is more the sum of its parts, all of which come together here to create a memorable theatrical experience. Would it be trite to say they just don’t make ’em like this anymore?

See “South Pacific” at the Golden Gate Theatre, from now to October 25. Tickets can be purchased on the SHN website.

Photo courtesy SHN.