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THEATER REVIEW: “South Pacific” soars at the Welk

I just returned from a vacation in Costa Rica, so I have an idea what Bloody Mary is singing about when she tries to get Lt. Cable to go to Bali Ha’i.

But Statesiders can visualize Bali Ha’i, inspect Bloody Mary’s handmade grass skirts and commiserate (or not) with the sailors and Seabees who long to be near a “girly, womanly, female, feminine dame” at the Welk Resorts Theatre, where Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic 1949 musical “South Pacific” plays through March 17. Joshua Carr directs.

Set during World War II and based on James Michener’s short stories, the main plot centers on the love story of perky Navy nurse Nellie Forbush (Hannah M. James), a “little hick” from Little Rock, and the much older and more sophisticated Emile DeBecque (Randall Dodge), a French plantation owner with a dark past.

A subplot involves new arrival Lt. Cable (the golden-voiced Benjamin Lopez), who falls in love with lovely young Liat (Joanna Tsang), daughter of brash local capitalist Bloody Mary (Brenda Oen), who sells shrunken heads and grass hula skirts “for sexy girlfriend back home.”

Bloody Mary’s comedic counterpart in the American forces is Luther Billis (Shaun Leslie Thomas), a wheeler-dealer in his own right, whose hilarious “Honey Bun” duet with Nellie nearly stops the show.

“South Pacific” is also remarkable for its head-on treatment of the thorny topic of racial prejudice: Nellie must decide whether she can deal with the fact that Emile has two children by a Polynesian woman, and Cable is confronted with the possibility of a cross-cultural marriage.

The fourth of the Rodgers and Hammerstein string of hits that ushered in the golden age of American musicals, “South Pacific” is a winner any way you look at it. Welk gives it a scaled-back treatment instrumentally, conductor/pianist Justin Gray making do with only four players in the pit.

But this “South Pacific” lite version works because of the show’s inherent strengths – loads of engaging characters, R&H’s string of great songs – and this production’s fine choreography by Ray Limon and excellent performances all around.

Dodge is a standout as DeBecque, his rich bass-baritone voice contrasting nicely with James’ light soprano. Though she has a tendency toward a nasal delivery, their acting chops match nicely and they have good chemistry.

Lopez is another standout, with a beautiful tenor voice that can equally sell the love song “Younger Than Springtime” and the comment on racism, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.”

Tsang is a lovely and engaging Liat with a dancer’s grace that makes it easy to understand Cable’s interest.

Oen and Thomas are terrific as comedic foils Bloody Mary and Billis, injecting just the right touch of lightness into the serious business of the surrounding war story.

They don’t write musicals as good as “South Pacific” anymore. More’s the pity.

The details

“South Pacific” plays through March 17 at Welk Resorts Theatre San Diego,
8860 Lawrence Welk Drive in Escondido.

Sunday and Wednesday at 1 pm; Thursday at 1 and 8 pm; Saturday at 8 pm.

For tickets, call 888-802-7469 or click HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.