There are some musicals so embedded in theatergoers’ consciousness that it feels like they must always have been in existence—springing full-fledged from the creators’ minds and landing on the stage to unanimous and perpetual applause. South Pacific, now opening the Manatee Players’ season, is one of those musicals; it’s been around so long (since 1949) and produced so often that even if you haven’t seen it for a while, you may still find your lips moving along with all the songs and dialogue.
That type of bone-deep familiarity doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t see a show’s flaws. Magnificent as the songs are, touching as the storylines of love between Ensign Nellie Forbush and French planter Emile de Becque and Liat and Lt. Joe Cable may be, there’s no getting away from the fact that the second act of the show is rather choppy, or that the instant, virtually wordless attraction between Liat and her lieutenant is hard to convey successfully.
But overall, you accept those flaws and move on, because of all the good things this classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical has to offer. Besides the love songs and the fun numbers (There is Nothin’ Like a Dame, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair), there’s the serious underpinning of racism and the struggle to overcome whatever biases we’re—not born with—but “carefully taught” to hold.
In the Manatee Players’ version, not all of the power and emotion come through, but the show is blessed with some talented performers and direction by Cory Boyas that keeps it on track and never grinds to a halt. As that cockeyed optimist Nellie, Jennifer Baker is lively and believable, especially winning when singing and dancing on I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy. She and Ken Basque, as Emile, sing their love duets together with skill, although you may find it as hard to believe at first as some of Nellie’s colleagues that they would be a good match.
Young Dane C. LaFemina likewise sings well as Joe Cable; his acting isn’t quite up to the point of his vocals yet, but give him time. Holly Rizzo is lovely as Liat, but let’s face it; this character doesn’t have much to do. Phil Croome is a stronger than usual Capt Brackett (this role doesn’t always register in community theater productions). Teri Lyons Duncan gets most of her expected laughs as the swearing Bloody Mary. And Mike Nolan hits the stage with lots of verve and hustle as the entrepreneurial Luther Billis, delivering his songs and lines with gusto.
Musical director Joyce Valentine and her orchestra provide strong backup for the singers, and Marc Lalosh’s set for the gracious home of a planter (enhanced by David Upton’s lighting) helps set the mood from the first moment.
South Pacific continues through Sept. 5 at the Riverfront Theatre; call 748-5875 or go to manateeplayers.com.