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‘South Pacific’ comes alive in Middle Village

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But now and then...

By Arlene McKanic

Rodgers and Hammerstein could be sly devils when they wanted to be. Often their stuff is fluff (most of “The Sound of Music”), with gorgeous, hummable songs lashed to plots as “corny as Kansas in summer” or whatever those lyrics say.

But now and then the duo used their heavenly tunes to make social commentary, such as the gentle critique of racism in “South Pacific.” The latest incarnation of this musical, which was based on the novel by James Michener (and, I’m sure, much sanitized), is now being presented by Beari Productions at the Trinity Lutheran Church in Middle Village. The performance is utterly marvelous.

The story is about “a bunch of sailors on the beach,” says Cas Marino, who plays hustler/CPO Luther Billis, and the wooing of the dumb, goodhearted Navy nurse Nellie Forbush by the suave French planter Emile De Becque. The Frenchman has a couple of secrets: he’s in the South Pacific because he killed a man in his native France and had to abscond, and he lived with a Polynesian woman and had two kids by her. Guess which secret freaks Nellie out when she finds out about it? A subplot is the even more improbable love story of the starchy Lieutenant Joe Cable and Liat, daughter of the Tonkinese peddler Bloody Mary. Oh, did I mention that there’s also a war going on in the vicinity?

The cast is wondrous, especially the rosy Amanda Doria as the ridiculous Nellie. Her bigotry is the genteel kind that comes from ignorance rather than virulent race hatred — when she pets Emile’s two daughters for the first time you can’t help but think that she has cooed similarly over adorable Negro children back in Arkansas. Her attitude toward De Becque is that of a schoolgirl with a crush on her French teacher rather than the mature love of a grown woman for a peer.

But Doria’s irrepressible performance makes you believe that Nellie’s buoyancy can survive being the chatelaine of an isolated, malarial island plantation because there’s only so much reality this lovable dope is going to acknowledge.

Danny Maldonado, Erik Neilssen, John Markisch, Joseph Schweigert and Thomas Sommella make a perfect pack of Seabees, marines and sailors with their hairy legs and knobby knees emerging from cargo shorts and their ears sticking out from under their white sailors’ caps. Rene Bendana invests Emile with the wistfulness and wisdom of a man who’s seen a bit too much of life, and Marino makes a brilliant, campy and screamingly funny Luther Billis. His star turn in the “Honey Bun” number, dressed in grass skirt and coconut cup bra, is worth the price of admission. Nelson Rocha and Peter Roland are also funny as his sidekicks Stewpot and Professor (thus named because he went to college and can pretend to speak Latin). Also good are Monica Barczak, Jennifer Favorito, Jaime Vacca, Leslie Bauer, Samantha Sheehan and Sylvia Walsh as Nellie’s talented and bouncy fellow nurses. You’re not surprised that their radiant health and sexiness cause the unintentionally celibate sailors to burst into the lament, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame.”

Jimmy O’Neill graces Lieutenant Cable with a beautiful tenor voice, and Malini Singh McDonald is funny and devious (she does pimp her own daughter, after all) as Bloody Mary. Melanie Gladstone’s nearly silent Liat is as graceful as a Polynesian moon flower, as is Margaret Saunders as a flower bedecked native girl. Lawrence Hoffman is sympathetic as Captain Brackett, a tough man who’s not too tough to enjoy a snort of hidden booze, or an evening’s entertainment. Bob Acerno is quietly humorous as his exec, Commander William Harbison, USN.

The musical numbers are, of course, to die for and the Beari players perform with panache. They say that a plate of grits is just an excuse to eat butter, well, the story of South Pacific is just an excuse to hear the music, which erases every clunkiness of plot. For example, while we can see what Nellie sees in Emile — he’s older, he’s wealthy, he’s sophisticated (drinks Cognac, reads Proust), his attraction to her, a woman he has known for a few weeks before he proposes marriage, is preposterous. We also know the uptight Lt. Cable would soon grow homicidally bored with the submissive, nearly mute and almost underage Liat. But, thanks to the music, none of this matters.

For someone like me, who has never seen the play but grew up with the music, the songs are revelatory. There is, over and over, the gorgeous, “Some Enchanted Evening,” Emile and Nellie’s love song; “Bali Ha’i,” Bloody Mary’s pitch to Lt. Cable (the better to hook him up with Lia: “Dites-Moi,” sung by Emile’s daughters Ngana and Jenny, played with true sweetness by Jazzmine Paz and Alessandra Licul; and of course, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” sung by a bitter Lt. Cable after he can’t bring himself to make an honest woman out of Liat.

Marino and Grace Weiss’s set design is excellent and solid. The stage, with its backdrop of sand, palm trees, blue lagoon with white caps and island on the horizon, is bookended by a garden set that represents De Becque’s plantation on one end and the austere office of Captain Brackett on the other. The latter invites study, with maps, schematics and lovely photos of WWII warplanes and FDR on the walls — you wonder if the flag in the corner actually has 48 stars. The only musical accompaniment is Alan Kingsley’s confident and often opulent piano playing — I could have listened to him play the overture all night. The numbers are given extra flair by Jaime Vacca’s choreography, Debbie Bendana and Jimmy O’Neill’s lighting and Ian McDonald’s sound effects. The costumes and props are nicely evocative of the 40’s.

Beari’s production of South Pacific is truly transcendent. It’s at Trinity Lutheran Church, 63-70 Dry Harbor Road in Middle Village through June 20. Go.

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