Not every actress can get away with the line "I'm as corny as Kansas in August," but in Molly Smith's robustly entertaining new production of "South Pacific," a young performer by the name of Kate Baldwin sings it with so much conviction that you're apt to believe afresh in cockeyed American optimism.
Baldwin's formidable challenge is the role of Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse who falls hard for the French heartthrob Emile de Becque, he with the thing for enchanted evenings, on an island out of the imagination of Rodgers and Hammerstein. What she and her director have done astonishingly well is to find the balance between Nellie's sunny nature and her unsettling prejudices, a feat that lends a plausibility to the tale of "South Pacific" that it can often lack.
With Baldwin's endearing portrayal as the bedrock, Arena Stage's revival of the 1949 classic unfolds on solid ground. The eternal score, with all those gorgeous standards to woo by, sounds lovely in the Fichandler Theater, thanks to some top-drawer voices and a 13-member orchestra conducted by George Fulginiti-Shakar. The work in other pivotal roles -- particularly that of Lori Tan Chinn as the pliable Polynesian trinket peddler Bloody Mary -- meets the material with a dead-on ferocity. And set designer Kate Edmunds opts for an elegant floral whisper of the South Seas, adorning the theater-in-the-round with an evocative border of tropical plants and coconut palms.
"South Pacific" is the first musical that Smith has directed in her five years at the helm of Arena, and it's a monumental lift. With 20 numbers and 25 scenes, the show rolls along for nearly three hours (including a couple of especially dry stretches in the exposition-laden second act). And then there's that message to impart, about love across ethnic lines. The premise is a little antique: Can Nellie and another American caught up in an island love affair, Lt. Joseph Cable (Brad Anderson), really be so completely repulsed by the idea of marriage to or children with a Polynesian?
Smith has said in interviews that she wanted to underline the ethnic divisions of "South Pacific" by casting only white actors as the Seabees and nurses, and nonwhites exclusively as the inhabitants of Tonga and Bali Ha'i. In point of fact, however, the Arena production treads remarkably lightly on this subject. It does not feel like a tract. When Anderson, who invests Cable with an engaging, all-American wholesomeness, delivers the pretty if heavy-handed "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," there is no lingering over the lyrics; the song, with its examination of the roots of racism, rushes by as if trying to pass us on the Beltway.
In other words, the portrait of ethnic insensitivity is rendered smartly, which makes it more digestible for a modern audience -- and more readily accessible as metaphor. This approach helps us to like Nellie, even after she rejects de Becque (Richard White) because he has children with a Polynesian woman. For this Nellie, more so than the character in other incarnations of the show, is definitively the sheltered girl from Little Rock. (Mitzi Gaynor, in the 1958 movie, was far too glamorous, and Glenn Close, in a recent television version, far too worldly.)
When Baldwin's youthful, creamy-skinned Nellie pronounces herself a "hick," everything about her, from the aw-shucks manner to the twangy drawl, confirms the description. In fact, she is such an unlikely match for White's dashing de Becque (the actor bears a resemblance to Kevin Kline) that you find yourself rooting for the against-all-odds pairing to work. And you are also convinced that if not for this exposure, precipitated by war, to a world beyond the Ozarks, this naive young woman might never have risen above her small-town ways.
In a sense, Smith's "South Pacific" is all about what happens when two vastly different small-town cultures bump up against each other. The clash, evident from the opening moments, is reinforced in everything from Robert Perdziola's period costumes to Baayork Lee's agile choreography. To accompany the overture, Smith and Lee invent a pantomime for the Seabees' arrival: Weighed down with gear and marching in formation, they are greeted by the local people who walk among them, removing ammo belts, unbuttoning the top buttons of their uniforms. It's the mingling of two varieties of innocence -- that of the idealism of the world's policeman, and the serenity of the island dweller.
The original "South Pacific" did not even have a choreographer; Lee, a veteran Broadway hoofer, shows how movement can add significantly to the story, if achieved with taste. The brief eruptions of rhythmic island dance provide just the right amount of embroidery. This is not an aggressive attempt, after all, to tell "South Pacific" from the islanders' point of view.
No, "South Pacific" remains an American touchstone -- it's a kindred spirit to Rodgers and Hammerstein's other tribute to our national character, "Oklahoma!" Smith's gobs joyously attest to the peak testosterone levels of military men abroad in "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame"; the Broadway pizazz of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" is blissfully intact in an infectious version by Baldwin and a nifty ensemble playing the other nurses; and vaudeville is ebulliently brought to life in the second-act drag number, "Honey Bun," featuring Baldwin and Lawrence Redmond as the naval reprobate Luther Billis.
Occasionally, musical exuberance gives way to hamminess: Someone ought to tell the Seabees they needn't push so hard to be "characters." As leader of the island's forces, J. Fred Shiffman is a strong presence but often seems too intent on drawing attention to himself; it's really not a major role. And Redmond, a skillful actor who was wonderful in the last production in the Fichandler, "The Misanthrope," puts on a Brooklyn accent that sounds like the kind of Noo Yawk-ese a visitor tries to mimic for the folks back in Columbus.
Other sounds emanating from the stage are more persuasive. White's rendition of "Some Enchanted Evening" does crowd-pleasing justice to a number burdened with high expectations; his delivery is even better on "This Nearly Was Mine," a song that arrives as a kind of bonus, deep in the second act. Another bonus: Smith's sensitive staging of "Younger Than Springtime," in which Cable professes love for Bloody Mary's daughter Liat (the graceful Liz Paw). It is performed on a pillar, bathed in Allen Lee Hughes's delicate lighting, that rises from the center of the stage.
Chinn's Bloody Mary, meanwhile, is a first-rate comic creation, the one-woman merchant class with an eye for the enticements of the East and a hand in the pocket of the West. If Baldwin gives Smith's production a heart, Chinn supplies the electricity, delivering jolt after vitalizing jolt. With a nod to Juanita Hall, the actress who created the role, Chinn nonetheless makes it her own. There really is nothing like a funny dame.
South Pacific, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan. Directed by Molly Smith. Sound, Timothy M. Thompson. With Max Perlman, Michael L. Forrest, Kyle Prue, Tuyet Thi Pham, Madeline Holland and Brian Jordan Riemer. Approximately 2 hours 50 minutes. Through Feb. 2 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org