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By Beki Pineda

SOUTH PACIFIC. Written by Oscar Hammerstein II and Josh Logan; music by Richard Rodgers; lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; directed by Patrick Sawyer.  Produced by Candlelight Dinner Playhouse (4747 Marketplace Drive, Johnstown) through May 8. Tickets available at 907-744-3747 or www.coloradocandlelight.com.

It all started with Bloody Mary. She was the subject of “Fo’ Dolla,” one of the short stories in James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” upon which the musical version was based. The story of the wily Tonkinese woman who sold cheap trinkets to the soldiers and looked for an American husband for her daughter was the jumping-off point. Other stories in the same collection were then joined to this character and the whole plot developed from there. The conjoined plots of older men in love with younger women (Emile in love with Nellie and Lt. Cable in love with Liat) were enhanced by scenes of what bored soldiers waiting to go into war did to amuse themselves. Originally produced in 1949, only four years after World War II ended, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s show replaced the lighthearted and frothy musicals of the past with this production that featured thought-provoking ideas and mature themes. In their own musical way, they stood up against racism. SOUTH PACIFIC and SHOW BOAT (from Hammerstein’s collaboration with Jerome Kern) were blatant pleas for racial empathy. The song “You’ve Got to be Taught” conveys as strong a message now as it did then.

Candlelight’s production breathes new life into an old classic with beautiful scenery, strong voices and colorful characters. Its story is familiar: It takes place on a Navy base on a Pacific Island inhabited by sailors and nurses waiting for the big push. Nellie, a girl raised on Arkansas values, finds herself falling in love with a French planter, sophisticated and worldly. The arrival of Lt. Joe Cable puts a gleam in the eye of Bloody Mary as she spots him as the man for her beautiful island daughter. The war intervenes in both romances and only one has a happy ending.

Nearly every song from this brilliant score is a hit, even by modern standards. They have all been covered by pop artists from the 1950s forward. “Bali Hai,” “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” and on and on.  You can’t name a song that hasn’t been sung over and over. It makes it fun to revisit them in this production.

The first time Markus Warren as Emile comes out on stage and starts singing “Some Enchanted Evening,” as an audience member, you just sink back in your seat and let the music wash over you. This show is in good hands—Markus is here.  With his gray temples and his confident continental air, he is the perfect Emile. A role often sung by opera singers, Emile is given poise and heart in this production.  Bussy Gower made a bouncy totally American hick as Nellie. She is at ease with the soldiers on the base, sympathetic to the conflicted feelings of Lt. Cable, and a little giddy to find herself in love with a wonderful guy. But I think it should be mandatory that any woman who auditions for this role must also be willing to cut her hair in order to give truth to the shower scene when she is washing that man out of her hair. Trying to fake it with a wig on your head just doesn’t work. You have to get wet and use shampoo.

The love story between Cable and Liat seems sudden and forced, but that’s a fault of the script, not the players. Tess Victoria as Liat doesn’t get any lines but still manages to convey her happiness at having found a soldier who loves her and pleases her mother. James Francis’s beautiful voice made up for the silence of his partner, and his shame at his own feelings was honestly portrayed. He can’t imagine staying on this island to be with her, but also can’t imagine taking her to his American home. Shades of Pinkerton!

Annie Dwyer made a sassy and scheming Bloody Mary and Tony White as Luther Billis was her American counterpart in dubious dealings. Billis is the one that is always looking for a way to make a quick buck or get around the rules. While T.J. Mullins’ part was small, he made the most of it and showed his true professionalism in a minor role.

As always, the technical designers and crew operate at Broadway standards. The beautiful backdrop of Bali Hai in the distance places the show solidly on an island. The flexible and inventive scenery designed by Aaron Scheckler made the production move along smoothly. The kitchen pleased as always with its Polynesian-themed meals. Another winning production by the team at Candlelight!

WOW factor: 8.5