The strangeness of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1949 "South Pacific" begins with the overture's mysterious first three notes, a haunting strain that you can probably conjure by saying the words "Bali Ha'i."

"It's foreign, unknown," says George Fulginiti-Shakar, music director of the new production of "South Pacific" that opens at Arena Stage this weekend. "Intervals have different effects on people, and that major seventh with the minor second as it comes off the top -- it's just, 'Oooh, what is that?' It's a little eerie."

It's also a cornerstone of one of the most sumptuous, beloved and hummable scores ever written. "Some Enchanted Evening," "A Cockeyed Optimist," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," "This Nearly Was Mine," "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame," "Younger Than Springtime," "Bloody Mary," "Honey Bun" -- these numbers are so well known that Arena has added a genial request to its usual litany of audience reminders. "No matter how much you love the song," goes the recorded announcement, "please refrain from singing along."

Fulginiti-Shakar says he delivered a knock-knock joke at the first rehearsal, the one about Sam and Janet. (Sam and Janet who? The actors, designers, and technicians all knew the punch line: Sam and Janet Evening.)

"I mean, not only are the songs in the American psyche," the music director says, "so are the jokes about the songs."

And yet "South Pacific" remains exotic -- something that's heard far more often than it's staged. Fulginiti-Shakar has never seen a major production of it; neither has director Molly Smith. Of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Big Five (the others being "Oklahoma!," "Carousel," "The King and I" and "The Sound of Music"), only "South Pacific" hasn't had a Broadway revival in the past decade -- or in fact any Broadway revival since the original production, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and nine Tony Awards. Even "Flower Drum Song," the politically tricky 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, has reemerged on Broadway, thanks to a new libretto by David Henry Hwang that's designed to erase condescension and old-fashioned attitudes.

Rapturous and well known as it is, "South Pacific" comes with quirks. It can be "corny as Kansas in August," in the lyrics of its exuberant heroine, Knucklehead Nellie Forbush. Then there's Nellie's racism; despite the fact that Oscar Hammerstein II was famously progressive and that the proper lessons of tolerance are inevitably learned in his shows, the way Nellie blanches at Emile de Becque's mixed-race kids can be frankly off-putting to modern audiences. And there is a history of casting non-Asians in a show that would seem to demand Asian performers, notably in the somewhat controversial role of Bloody Mary, a wartime wheeler-dealer who tries to match her daughter with a handsome Marine.

Arena Artistic Director Smith and her crew are aware of all of this, yet despite the obstacles (and what production is ever free of obstacles?) they seem to have had a splendid time grappling with problems and getting the show on its feet.

"Actors can grow more serious as they explore a role," notes Smith, who is directing a big American musical for the first time in her career. "Musical theater performers are different; their spirits are quite light."

That much was clear when Max Perlman, the actor playing a Navy Seabee known as Stewpot, slightly twisted a knee during rehearsal a week before Thanksgiving. Perlman retired to the sidelines with an ice pack on his leg while the cast ran through "Nothin' Like a Dame," but he gamely sang along and channeled his pain into his solo line. "What don't we feel?" the chorus bellowed.

"We don't feel good!" Perlman roared. Everyone, including Smith, cracked up.

'The Racial Angle'

Waiting for war: That's the fundamental backdrop of "South Pacific," and one reason that Smith contends, "I think this show is perfectly attuned to right now." There are no overt references to America's slow walk-up to possible conflict with Iraq, of course, but Smith senses strong similarities between the situations of the show and of post-9/11 America. "It's the intensity, the feeling that this is the moment, we are now awake, that's very much the sense in 'South Pacific' when the play moves into war. In the beginning it's relaxed, easy, playful, but around the edges there's an awareness that the Japanese could attack at any moment. That heightens the emotions of the play; that heightens the love affairs. The love affairs have to be right now; they have to be hot."

Like "The King and I" and "Flower Drum Song," "South Pacific" hinges on a culture clash. The show, with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Hammerstein and a book by Hammerstein and director Joshua Logan (director and co-author of a previous wartime show, "Mister Roberts"), is based on several stories from "Tales of the South Pacific," James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning work about life on the Japanese front during World War II.

The primary story concerns Nellie Forbush, the young cockeyed optimist from Arkansas. Her deeply ingrained bigotry causes her to recoil from the mixed-race children fathered by Emile de Becque, the suave middle-aged Frenchman she has rapidly fallen in love with. (In Michener's book, which naturally is harder-edged than the musical, de Becque fathered eight daughters by three women; in the show, he's had a mere two cuties by one woman, who is now dead. Also worth noting: Michener's Nellie repeatedly thinks the n-word to herself.) In a parallel plot, Lt. Joe Cable is smitten with a Tonkinese girl named Liat -- Bloody Mary's daughter -- but he lacks the courage to marry her.

The musical was tailored to the talents of Mary Martin, one of Broadway's all-time charmers, and Ezio Pinza, a star bass with the Metropolitan Opera. At Martin's request, Richard Rodgers wrote no big romantic duets so her voice wouldn't be dwarfed by Pinza's. A half-century later, their act remains tough to follow.

"It's hard to cast," Smith points out, contemplating the musical's relative rarity. (Relative is the operative word: Though its reappearance on Broadway is widely considered long overdue, it's still staged about 450 times annually in the United States and Canada, with amateur and scholastic productions outnumbering professional ventures almost 9 to 1.) Smith cites the multiple leading roles, the size and prominence of the chorus, the vocal demands, the romantic requirements.

Are there other elements that keep "South Pacific" at bay?

"It could be the racial angle," guesses choreographer Baayork Lee, who appeared in the original "King and I" on Broadway when she was 5 and "South Pacific" was in the midst of its 1,925-performance run across the street. "But I think it's very appropriate right now."

There are signs that "South Pacific" is trying to work its way back to the cultural forefront. A production headlined by Robert Goulet (and Michael Nouri before him) has been touring the country lately. ABC produced a sumptuously photographed, indifferently sung television movie last year starring Glenn Close; casting the middle-aged Close as Nellie seemed like an attempt to make the character more contemplative, less annoyingly giddy (the unfortunate impression Mitzi Gaynor made in the 1958 film).

ABC's venture was followed by Trevor Nunn's much-anticipated production at London's Royal National Theatre. The National not only launched the "Oklahoma!" that reached Broadway this year but also brought Rodgers and Hammerstein back into fashion in the early 1990s with Nicholas Hytner's dramatically powerful staging of "Carousel." Nunn, who directed the current "Oklahoma!," kept a diary for the London Daily Telegraph; in it he confided that the late James Hammerstein (son of Oscar) had suggested that for "South Pacific" to work as well as "Oklahoma!" did, Nunn would have to make changes to the original script -- "especially in the last section," Nunn wrote, "which he believed was unsatisfactory despite the fact that the original production enjoyed a worldwide triumph."

Nunn was granted a good deal of latitude by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which keeps a notoriously close eye on its properties. He structured the stage show the way it was presented in the 1958 film and the ABC movie, by starting with a war atmosphere and the rousing choral numbers "Bloody Mary" and "Nothin' Like a Dame." And Nunn added two songs that had been cut from the second act: "My Girl Back Home," a wistful number sung by Cable and Nellie (it's sung by Cable alone in the movie), and "Now Is the Time," a proud military anthem sung by de Becque and Cable as they embark on a dangerous mission. The London reviews were mixed, and the show did not make the great leap across the pond.

Smith wanted to use "Now Is the Time" for her production at Arena, but the RHO denied permission, having concluded that it hadn't worked in London; Smith did, however, win permission to use "My Girl Back Home." Unlike Nunn, Smith is sticking close to the 1949 script, which plunges headlong into the just-about-to-boil relationship between Nellie and Emile. (That means "Some Enchanted Evening" is sung about 10 minutes into the show, not after 45 minutes or more.) Theodore S. Chapin, president and executive director of the RHO, describes the two different openings this way: "You establish the war or you establish the characters." He adds that he thinks the latter approach "is right."

Cross-cultural casting is a staple at Arena, but Smith is going the other way here: Her production is marked by extremely sharp cultural boundaries. The segregated, all-white military stands in crisp contrast with the pan-Asian islanders, and Richard White's composed, white-suited de Becque has a distinct continental air. "We want to expose the differences," Smith says, "because the show is all about differences."

Lee has been asked to create a ritual dance for the islanders on Bali Ha'i, and she has taken pains to make it real. "We've merged several cultures together," the choreographer says. "We have steps from Fiji and from Tonga and from Vietnam. We've made our own island."

Lori Tan Chinn, who played Bloody Mary in the ABC version of the musical, is tackling the role again at Arena and is attempting to give it some authenticity of her own. The character has generally been played by African Americans, stretching from Juanita Hall's turns in the original stage production and the movie to Gretha Boston and Armelia McQueen in the recent U.S. touring show. (A star-studded 1986 recording with Jose Carreras, Kiri Te Kanawa and Mandy Patinkin featured Sarah Vaughan as Bloody Mary.)

While Chinn says "Bless them" of all the actresses who have played the role before her, she says it's a sore point that Asian performers have often been excluded from a pointedly Asian part. And Mary's cheerful-bordering-on-infantile "Happy Talk," sung as she tries to sell Cable on Liat, also irritates some Asian Americans. It was cut from the ABC production, though apparently for time, not for content, and it's in the show at Arena.

"I guess you could safely say we're reexamining the role," says Chinn, whose family line goes back to Canton, China, not far from Bloody Mary's Tonkin region. "It's different in an Asian's shoes."

Smith brought in World War II veterans to ground the cast in history and military fundamentals; lessons included the right way to stencil shirts and fold hats, according to Kate Baldwin, the sprightly redhead who plays Nellie. Like Chinn, Baldwin draws on a little family background: Her grandfather fought in the South Pacific, and her brother is currently in the Navy. In e-mails, she and her brother address each other by rank, even though hers is fictional.

"We think we're pretty funny," Baldwin says with a self-deprecating laugh that sounds absolutely Nellie.

Smith wants the audience to see the story through Nellie's eyes, and Baldwin says that to Nellie, "everything is new and exotic and unheard of and exciting. The naivete that comes with that is both charming and stupid. . . . I approach her as someone who doesn't know any better, who doesn't even know she's a racist. She has to work these things out on her feet, through experience."

Baldwin observes that these days, Americans generally have "a greater awareness of other cultures and what they think of us. Back then, they didn't know."

Does that mean "South Pacific," perhaps like "Flower Drum Song," needs to be nudged closer to modern sensibilities?

The RHO's Chapin says, "No," and says it immediately. "I wouldn't have answered so quickly a few years ago, but having seen the attempts . . . they knew what they were doing back then. The longer I've been here, the more confident I've become in what these pieces are."

Lee and Chinn both use the term "period piece" to describe "South Pacific." "You can't correct it," says Chinn.

Smith isn't trying to. Her choices are based on close reading, not revision. "What's been fascinating for me," she says, "is that in many ways it could only be written by an American. It is American thinking. The Seabees are American ingenuity; the sense of being able to struggle against these great odds and succeed is American, and naivete is American. And youthful optimism is something that I think is part of the American spirit."

Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are always in danger of being classified as irrevocably out of date; Chapin says that when he joined the RHO in the early 1980s, it was a widely held opinion that their shows would never be seen on Broadway again. But Smith feels that the fearlessness of Rodgers and Hammerstein is still something to respect.

"They take on these big subjects in a way that they didn't really have to," Smith says. "They didn't have to talk about race in the late 1940s. At the end of World War II, they could have written an easy entertainment musical, but that wasn't the way they thought. They would go for darker, deeper, more difficult subject matter and musicalize it."

Chapin comes at it from another angle: "Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, I think they wanted this to be a hit," he says. The duo was coming off its first failure, "Allegro" (1947), and Chapin points out that they wrote "South Pacific" with two major stars in hand (which hadn't been the case with "Oklahoma!," "Carousel" and "Allegro," innovative shows in which Rodgers and Hammerstein had been the stars). They also took the unusual step of allowing Logan in as a co-librettist. "They worked very, very hard to make it as good as they could make it," he says.

As for the sense that "South Pacific" is trying, via the recent flurry of productions, to work its way back to the forefront of public consciousness, Smith says, "I think it deserves to be there." She adds: "My greatest joy would be for people to come and see this and say, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Joshua Logan and James Michener were great storytellers -- and my God, how much we remain the same. How much history repeats itself."

"You can't correct it," says Lori Tan Chinn (with Lawrence Brimmer, left, and Parker Esse) of "South Pacific's" dated attitudes.Director Molly Smith, center, with Kate Baldwin and Richard White as Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque . . .. . . roles famously played in the 1949 original Broadway production by Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.