Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Don't go to the "South Pacific" that opened Monday night at Wolf Trap determined to be unhappy if it is not the truly Enchanted Evening that once was performed by Pinza and Martin.
For you would deny yourself the many pleasures of hearing a solid cast in one of the finest works ever written for the American stage, a touching drama of love, sacrifice and death of persons arbitrarily thrown together as the result of a far-off war.
Twenty-eight years after its initial triumph, "South Pacific" stands up as an enormously powerful creation. There probably are as many good parts in the show as in any work for the musical stage.
Rodgers and Hammerstein and Logan mined the riches of Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific" and brought us Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse from Little Rock; Emile de Becque, the French planter with whom she falls in love (de Befque is a carelessly spelled "de Beque" in the program): Joe Cable, the doomed Marine lieutenant; Liat, the native girl with whom he falls in love; Bloody Mary, her crude mother; Luther Billis, the lusty Seabee entrepreneur, and many others.
These are strong, memorable characters, and the roles are among the real plums of all musical theater (as that great 1949 cast demonstrated).
Equally memorable are the songs. Here is a score that can place "Some Enchanted Evening" in the first scene without making anything that follows seem anticlimactic.
As for the version at Wolf Trap, which runs through Saturday, parts of it are quite splendid, particularly some of the singing. But other parts, the sets, for instance, are depressingly drab.
Certainly, this is no "major new production," (as it was described to me by one of its producers). It is neither "major" nor particularly "new." The minimal sets, obviously low budget, are borrowed from a five-year-old Dallas production and show their age as well as their lack of flair.
And the leads, Jane Powell and Howard Keel, have sung both of their parts before.
The drama itself has no real sense of pacing. When there's no music, the action is pretty flat. Characters walk on and off at badly timed moments, there are lags between scenes, and often actors and actresses stand around seemingly idle, without direction.
But if you're going to place all your strengths in a single aspect of "South Pacific," the voies are where you would do it, and that's what producers Robert Young and Jane Friedlander have done.
They aren't ashamed to try to copy the original cast recording as closely as possible in interpretation. They may not have Martin, who is elsewhere on a Washington stage this week, or a Pinza - but they have their leads follow those models.
It is to Howard Keel's great credit that he, with the greatest singer to emulate, is most successful in this approach. This reviewer has been playing the cast recording rather frequently of late, and Keel's phrasing, timbre, accent and diction show careful study of Pinza's. The voice sounds grand, and it fails him only in that soft closing of "Some Enchanted Evening" where the high note at the end of the pharse "never let her go" is beyond him when sung softly. Also, Keel's acting recalls Pinza's - he is a large man, handsome and with genteel bearing.
This approach works less well for Jane Powell. Her voice is too polished and operatic to copy Martin's wonderfully nasal spontaneity. The one song where she managed to pull it off was "Honey Bun," where Nellie plays a Seabee in a Thanksgiving show with Luther dressed in grass skirt and coconut halves as "basooms."
There she takes on a gravelly sound that effectively hides her pure, resonant tones. Her dancing and demeanor suggest Martin, but her acting, particularly in the opening scene, is too uptight and priggish for the insouciant Nellie.
Queen Yahna, as Bloody Mary, sings a particularly haunting "Bali Hai," suggesting Juanita Hall in the original. But between songs, her version of the endearing schemer who chews betol nuts and sells grass skirts is listless. James Ferier, as Cable, sings a nice high tenor and acted the part forcefully.
One encumbrance that is not the fault of the production was the difficulty in understanding words in Wolf Trap's warm but imprecise acoustics.