'South Pacific' is still afloat

The songs from "South Pacific" have been practically embedded in the DNA of many Americans for a long time. So it's all the more remarkable that the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about love, loss and gain amid World War II did not get an all-out revival on Broadway until nearly 60 years after its premiere.

That 2008 revival, directed by Bartlett Sher at the Lincoln Center Theater, simultaneously honored the 1949 original and made both the book and the music freshly compelling. With a superb cast, evocative design and a luxury-size orchestra in the pit, the production seemed too good to be true. It may have been too good to be duplicated.

The first national touring version, which played the Kennedy Center last year, measured up reasonably well. The look was the same; the cast had sufficient chemistry and vocal chops; the size of the orchestra was not cut back too much.

Now comes the second national tour, which reached Baltimore this week and continues at the Hippodrome through Sunday. Those who retain strong memories of the Lincoln Center version will likely feel disappointed, starting with the tiny orchestra.

Newcomers should not be discouraged, however. If there's a hint of the provincial here, enough of the flavor from the Lincoln Center staging still emanates. This is still a firm affirmation of what makes "South Pacific" great.

Katie Reid has the role of Nellie Forbush, the American nurse at war with herself over a man and her own ingrained prejudice. Reid could dig deeper into the character, and her solid, pleasant singing could use more distinctive nuances, but hers is an engaging, ultimately persuasive performance.

Uruguayan baritone Marcello Guzzo follows a long line of non-Frenchmen in the role of Emile de Becque, the cause of Nellie's consternation and yearning. Guzzo is a competent actor, a much more impressive vocalist. Whatever he lacks in low-register firmness, he more than compensates for with beautifully rounded top notes.

Cathy Foy-Mahi lights up the place with her portrayal of the feisty Bloody Mary. She also sings with a great deal of warmth and insight, riding the bittersweet undercurrent of "Happy Talk" in telling fashion. Christian Marriner is likewise an asset as the continually conniving Billis. Hsin-Yu Liao does a sweet turn as Liat.

Shane Donovan makes a bland Lt. Cable, skating over the surface of the pivotal role, and his singing is short on dynamic subtlety. The rest of the cast does more or less admirable work.

Director Sarna Lapine has re-created Sher's concept faithfully, down to the way sailors maintain then-normal segregation. Michael Yeargan's seamlessly shifting sets have been adapted without losing too much atmosphere. The sight of Bali Ha'i has less impact than I recall, but the gray, unsettled sky at the start of Act 2 remains a wonderful image, mirroring the dark turn of events below.

"South Pacific" will be performed through Sunday at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. $25.25 to $90.25. Call 410-547-7328 or go to tickematser.com.

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