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Setting sail on South Pacific

The season schedule reads like a conservative high school's four-year highlights of spring musicals. The popular Grease, the manageable dose of Andrew Lloyd Weber in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the challenging and edgy Pippin, and of course, South Pacific, one of the surest of hits, mixing stories adapted from James Michener with the music and lyrics of Rodgers and Hammerstein. What could possibly go wrong?

Obviously, everything could go wrong, but in the Fine Arts Center Repertory Theatre season opener, nothing does. South Pacific offers audiences just about everything they'd expect from the venerable classic. The Bali Ha'i backdrop is bigger and more beautiful than ever, the lead voices are stronger than you'd expect, and the chorus is as solid as any the Rep has put on stage. In an age of reinterpretation and experimental departures, director Billie McBride makes no bones about it: This is your father's Navy.

The great joy of South Pacific is sitting back and reveling in the confidence of Rodgers and Hammerstein as they stack hit after hit song in the win column. The first scene alone boasts five songs assured enough to maintain the audience's attention with little more than the two lead characters, Emile de Becque and Nellie Forbush, trading indestructible solos guaranteed to capture their audience. Andra Lyndell Burch is a rougher, more literal "hick" than audiences may be prepared for, but by the time she gets a couple of bars into "A Cockeyed Optimist," it's all over. We're hers, hook, line and sinker. And though Robert Tiffany's first impression is solid, we can be justified in waiting to hear the duet "Twin Soliloquies" or his evocatively rich rendition of "Some Enchanted Evening" before settling back with the assurance that we are in good hands for the evening.

The chorus is small, but perhaps that helps account for their strength. With a half dozen each of sailors and nurses, the company never needs to push past the limits of available talent. They are surprisingly strong and vocally tight, doing justice with numbers like "Bloody Mary," "There is Nothin' Like a Dame," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair," and "A Wonderful Guy."

If there is any area where the Rep shows the strain of growing pains, it's in filling out the supporting characters. Karen Vasil Carolan and Kevyn L. Shea are both capable as Bloody Mary and Luther Billis, but each falls just short of embodying the essential spirit of his or her character. Carolan captures Bloody Mary's huckster qualities perfectly, but we never see the trace of sincerity that makes the story work when we move to Bali Ha'i and meet her daughter Liat. Shea is consistent and dutiful in his performance, but he never quite rises to the sharp-edged, rough-hewn character of Billis.

One of the most promising performances is Jeremy Brown's turn as Lt. Joseph Cable. Though he is tentative in his light-hearted rendition of "Younger Than Springtime," there is no mistaking the seeds of a bravura performance waiting to blossom. The love story between Cable and Liat is the least developed element of the script, and "Younger than Springtime" is the best chance to convince doubting audiences that something has developed between the characters. One way or another, the characters need to be convincing in depicting the power of this love affair in order for the play's underlying themes of tolerance and acceptance in the face of prejudice to ring true. The point is left to the convincing and more intricate negotiations between Nellie and Emile.

If you've never seen this mainstay classic of American musical theater, it's high time you take advantage of the chance to add this cultural supplement to your diet. The rest of you know what you're in for. The only surprise is the uncompromised quality of the production.

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