“SOUTH PACIFIC,” CenterPoint Legacy Theatre at the Davis Center for the Performing Arts, through May 19, $20-$17, 801-298-1302 or CenterPointTheatre.org
CENTERVILLE — As the skies above the mystical South Sea isle of Bali Ha’i transform on the theater backdrop from pastel pinks and mauves to foreboding cloudy grays, audiences are beckoned into the captivating world of “South Pacific.”
In the landmark musical, there are two battlefields. On the first, American servicemen are at war against a determined Japanese military at the onset of World War II. But there’s also a struggle to confront racism.
“South Pacific” was the first musical to step beyond frothy romantic divertissements to confront head-on a sensitive topic the world was grappling with on a daily basis.
French plantation owner Emile de Becque and nurse Nellie Forbush are entangled in this war and deal with prejudice as their romance grows, and Marine Lt. Joseph Cable is intolerant to accept the love he feels for the young island native Liat.
At the CenterPoint Legacy staging, director Jim Christian balances the romance and drama for an enjoyable evening of treasured musical theater. Christian treats “South Pacific” as the powerful literature that it is — “South Pacific” is the only stage work that can count two Pulitzer Prizes as its honors. James A. Michener’s “Tales from the South Pacific,” the source material for the stage adaptation, earned a Pulitzer and so did the 1949 stage adaptation by lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and director Joshua Logan, with music by Richard Rodgers. Rodgers and Hammerstein created a list of musical masterpiece plays, but “South Pacific” stands above for its political and patriotic content.
Strong voices are the hallmark of this production. An effervescent Lindsea Garside leads the cast as “knucklehead” Nellie, with Kevin Burtenshaw as Emile. Equally impressive singing comes from Jared Morgan as Cable in “You’ve Go to Be Carefully Taught,” a powerful indictment of the mindlessness of bigotry.
But "Some Enchanted Evening," "This Nearly Was Mine" and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” also glow with their customary radiance.
Christian is also credited with musical direction, and the chorus of Seabees and nurses are strong in their choral work. David Marsden stands out among the Seabees as an overly clownish Luther Billis, but the Professor (with no horn-rimmed glasses?) and Stewpot characters are lost in the crowd.
Choreography by Jessica Merrill is fine for the nurses in the Thanksgiving Follies, but there’s little to impress in the dances set for what could be an energetically raucous group of girl-deprived Seabees in “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame.”
The song “My Girl Back Home” was cut from the original Broadway production to speed the show but re-inserted into the 1958 film. The transcendent Tony-honored revival, which Salt Lake audiences were lucky enough to see at the Capitol Theatre in January, re-instated the song, and it is missed here for its charm and how it more fully explains the indecisiveness of Nellie and Cable. (It’d seem an obvious choice selecting between hearing the full overture and the character-revealing “My Girl Back Home.”)
The finely crafted set and scenery replicate the ingeniously simple design of the 2008 Lincoln Center, Bartlett Sher-helmed “South Pacific,” but with a toweringly tall, multi-headed tiki waterfall structure as an intrusive, Vegas-style addition.
At CenterPoint Legacy, it’s a pleasurable cruise to Bali Ha’i and “South Pacific.”