A tinge of high and lonesome twang comes naturally to Beth Malone. It’s a perfect attribute for an actress playing Ensign Nellie Forbush, the naive Midwestern nurse of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.”
Similarly, John Cudia’s full, lush tenor gives everything one could hope for in his companion role of Emile de Becque, the worldly French exile whom Nellie falls in love with. Their complicated romance has always formed the primary story in the classic musical drama, and it leads the way again in the new Music Circus production, which opened Tuesday night.
With music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and a book adapted by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan from James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Tales of the South Pacific,” the production should have an easy familiarity for Music Circus audiences. This is the musical’s 13th production in the round in Sacramento, having first been staged in 1955 and most recently in 2006.
Set on a South Pacific island during World War II, the musical, which opened on Broadway in 1949, contains an exoticism that’s almost quaint by current standards but also a hard, clear-eyed view of racial prejudice the country hadn’t really begun to confront. The out-front themes made the piece fairly controversial, but it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and 10 Tony Awards in 1950.
Director Glenn Casale confidently relies on his able and well-matched leads to carry his intimately scaled production, and they are more than up to it. Malone’s lithe, sinewy athleticism defines Nellie’s all-American roots in Little Rock, Ark. Nellie, “The Cockeyed Optimist,” is contrasted with Cudia’s elegant de Becque, a Proust-reading European with mixed-race children from an earlier liaison with a local woman.
Nellie and de Becque have met and essentially fallen in love before the play opens, though we first see them at his home on their initial date when we hear their inner thoughts in “Twin Soliloquies.” Cudia/de Becque then recalls their coming together on “Some Enchanted Evening,” and the romantic ballad won’t ever receive any more tribute than Cudia’s grand performance of the song.
The Forbush and de Becque pairing finds a parallel relationship in the coupling of Eric Kunze’s Lt. Joseph Cable and the young island woman Liat (Briahna Yee). Cable has been sent to the island for a dangerous reconnaissance mission, but before it can be staged, the local entrepreneur Bloody Mary (Armelia McQueen) has pimped off her daughter to him. Kunze, also a gifted vocalist, renders a beautiful “Younger Than Springtime.” His bitter ode to racism, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” carries the production’s essential message.
There are comedic elements mixed throughout the drama, with much of that coming from Jeff Skowron’s scheming Luther Billis and his contentious relationship with the company officers, Capt. Brackett (Ron Wisniski) and Cmdr. William Harbison (Michael Stevenson). Nellie’s famous hair-washing set piece, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” is creatively executed by the game Malone, and McQueen produces a bright highlight with “Happy Talk.”
Music Circus’ grandeur under director Casale’s savvy hand always resides in the passions of the characters on stage. Though “South Pacific” is achingly familiar, this production finds a freshness in the story’s fundamental decency.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120.