Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” is feeling very American these days. Not the folksy “Music Man” America we might idealize, but the bruised America that is at once vexed by race, gender, insult and injustice and at the same time aspiring to self-sacrifice and nobility.
Joseph Haj’s earnest and honest production of the 1949 classic — which opened Friday at the Guthrie — paints a world of flawed people, some damaged by their own privilege, who try to overcome their limitations and do something heroic during wartime.
His staging is unsentimental and straightforward, yet he lands the emotional core of the drama. He etches distinct icons in his lead roles and draws wonderfully aerating comic relief from the side characters. As strong as Haj’s dramaturgy, though, this production — his first as Guthrie artistic director — could stand some flair in the big song numbers.
Hammerstein and Joshua Logan used the backdrop of World War II to write a story of racial attitudes, gender roles and heroism. Navy Ensign Nellie Forbush is assigned to an island base where she has attracted the attention of expatriate French plantation owner Emile de Becque. That relationship will force her to peer inside her prejudiced attitudes.
Meanwhile, Lt. Joe Cable arrives on base to launch a dangerous, essential military mission. The exotic whisper of the nearby island Bali Hai lures this sensitive guy from his Ivy League moorings.
Erin Mackey’s Nellie has the lilting Arkansas twang of someone who, while stunted in life experience, is nonetheless educated, articulate and confident — a privileged woman of the midcentury American South. Convincing in her appearance, Mackey’s singing voice and personality could stand to consume more oxygen.
She and Edward Staudenmayer’s de Becque share a coolish chemistry (perhaps Haj’s choice to keep distance between these two people from very different worlds?). Staudenmayer’s rich, tender voice forces you to scrub your memory clean of every crummy piano-bar version you’ve heard of “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine.” Staudenmayer convinces us that these once were real, serious songs. He could, though, use some world-weary gray hair. De Becque killed a man in France and fled to this exotic lifestyle. That experience isn’t on Staudenmayer’s face.
CJ Eldred presents a convincing Joe Cable, righteous and strong, lean and fit, even when he goes heroin chic with malaria. Eldred has a legit voice (“Younger Than Springtime”), and he shares great empathy with Manna Nichols’ Liat, the Tonkinese beauty he cannot resist.
Liat’s mother, Bloody Mary, is an economic scrapper living off the war. Christine Toy Johnson (a fine singer) is costumed (Jennifer Caprio’s designs) to resemble “Mother Courage,” Brecht’s mythic war survivor. She also has the desperate spirit of a stage mother. Noble? You decide.
The snappiest chemistry is between Jimmy Kieffer’s Billis and Steve Hendrickson’s Capt. Brackett. Kieffer plays a roomy fellow, unshaven, but nimble, a sweetheart, a (dis)honorable operator. As the camp captain, Hendrickson’s voice was ground in the gravel of George C. Scott’s Patton.
Haj can congratulate his technical staff again. However, Daniel Pelzig’s choreography — athletic as it is — does not sing and dance like it should. Only “Honey Bun” has some real pop. “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame” felt tame until the reprise.
Which is too bad, because this old American classic still has legs.