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Scaled-down 'South Pacific' confronts some dark issues

Nothing can fix a bad mood like Rodgers and Hammerstein.

And no Rodgers and Hammerstein musical tries harder to imbue its audience with a sense of optimism than "South Pacific," a touring version of which opened its six-day run in Shea's Performing Arts Center on Tuesday night.

The self-consciously preachy show, scaled down in size, budget and impact from its glimmering 2008 Broadway production at Lincoln Center, confronts dark issues with bright melodies and complex struggles with simple chords.

Set on a South Pacific island during World War II, the 1949 musical delves into the roots of American prejudice through the story of a Navy nurse from Little Rock and a suave French plantation owner with a dark past who happens to have two mixed-race children from a previous marriage. It all plays out amid a swirling caricature of life among sailors and officers in the lead-up to a massive mobilization of forces against the Empire of Japan.

This production's cast, led by the capable Jennie Sophia as plucky young Nellie Forbush and an occasionally stilted Marcelo Guzzo as Emile de Becque, brings Rodgers and Hammerstein's music beautifully to life. But the show's overall impact suffers from this largely young cast's unpolished acting skills and a staging that sometimes makes the Shea's playing space seem crammed.

Because this show is a non-Equity tour (meaning that it uses less experienced actors who haven't gotten their union cards yet) and because it has been retooled for a proscenium stage as opposed to Lincoln Center's more intimate thrust, it's tough to compare too directly to the production that spawned it. Still, so perfectly calibrated was every element of the 2008 revival that this tour can't help but come across as a paler impression of director Bartlett Sher's original vision.

Even so, several performances stand out, Sophia's chief among them. Though a bit shaky in the opening scenes -- perhaps purposefully -- she seemed to grow more comfortable in her character's skin as the show went on. By the time she belts out the crowd-pleaser "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair," she owns Nellie. And her performance of "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy" is confident and lovely, if not as infectious or exuberant as it might have been.

Guzzo's thick Ecuadorean accent and programmatic delivery makes his performance harder to warm up to, but the forceful and dynamic voice of this trained opera singer eventually makes those concerns melt away. His emotional "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine" brought rapturous applause from the crowd.

As Bloody Mary, the island's resident dispenser of shrunken heads and grass skirts, Yvonne Strumecki delivers a haunting "Bali Ha'i" and a perfect performance of the underrated song "Happy Talk," in which she tries to convince the young Lt. Cable (Shane Donovan) to marry her young daughter Liat (Hsin-Yu Liao).

Robert John Biederman, himself a former Navy officer, turns in a convincing and magnetic performance as Capt. George Brackett, who oversees the motley crew of Seabees and nurses with an iron fist and a sense of humor.

Elements that made the 2008 production special come through in the show's haunting lighting and in some parts of Joe Langworth's restaging of its original choreography. Toward the end of the show, as a battalion of sailors marches out to war while singing a haunting reprise of "Honey Bun," they're illuminated from beneath by lights that make them look like mechanized toy soldiers. The effect is both beautiful and chilling.

And as Nellie sings a wistful reprise of "Some Enchanted Evening," which has changed from a love song into a ballad of Nellie's regret at her own racism, she does so as the soft light from the Pacific moon reflects off the leaves of a distant palm tree. The stage picture of that crucial moment, like the musical itself even in diminished form, is indelible.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

***

"South Pacific"

3 stars (out of 4)

Musical presented by Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Tickets are $32.50 to 67.50.

For more information, call 847-0850 or visit www.sheas.org.