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Magical Shortage in "South Pacific"

For a big Broadway musical that is otherwise (to quote one character) as  corny as Kansas in August, South Pacific is full of darkness. Despite its cavalcade of terrific songs, this 1949 musical serenades war, death and racism. And features some creepy characters.

Much of this is surmounted in the memorable 1958 film version; Mitzi Gaynor and the rest truly rocked. And perhaps what is not quite thrilling verging on weird about this new touring production of the Tony winning 2008 Broadway revival is that the cast lack oomph.

Only Matthew Saldivar as the entrepreneurial Seabee Luther Billis, brings in a sufficient amount of oomph. A roughie (sounds like Brooklyn?) he’s all  piss and vinegar and charm.

But even the romantic leads, Nellie and Emile (Carmen Cusak and Rod Gilfry) can’t match his charisma. And while their hasty courtship is in itself ridiculous, a degree of chemistry might help make that palatable.

Don’t get me wrong; their musical numbers – notably “Cockeyed Optimist”, “Some Enchanted Evening" and “I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”—are just plain good.

Still, the most excitement abounds when Billis and the rough and tumble sailors, Seabees and marines: are on stage. Their numbers (“Bloody Mary” and “Nothing But a Dame”) are full of energy and athletic dance. The sexual suggestiveness of their longings for female companionship brings a spice to the stage that’s just not there at other times.

Well, the character of Bloody Mary is some kind of spicy. The Tonkinese peddler is grotesque example of tropical femininity. Very fat and vulgar, she looks like some kind of prostitute Sumo wrestler. Keala Settle certainly makes an unforgettable impression as Bloody Mary. She just oozes barbarian menace.

If memory serves, this is a real departure from the movie version. In that, Bloody Mary was pushy and bold. And when she tries to fix up the handsome Lieutenant Cable with her young daughter, its more like a meddling Jewish mama type thing. And their island romance makes it legit.

Here, under Bartlett Sher's uneven direction, Bloody Mary seems like a creepy pimp for her daughter. And Sumie Maeda as her tiny daughter (dwarfed by the impossibly tall Lieutenant) seems like an underage geisha.

When Anderson Davis, the heart throb Lieutenant., sings “Younger Than Springtime,” (after the fastest meet-and-bed ever staged) the romance seems kinda wrong. “You like?” Bloody Mary asks.

This Rodgers and Hammerstein musical was an early instance of popular culture addressing racism head on. And though the characters overcome it, Mary’s dark primitivism is hardly enlightened.

But such analysis may be over-thought. All this might be simply a curious thing if the show’s energy blew the roof off the Golden Gate theater. It does not.