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Opera House hosts a pleasant if off-pitch 'South Pacific'

Rarely has the notion of war seemed more quaint or attractive than in "South Pacific," Rodgers and Hammerstein's propaganda poster of a love story set on a remote Pacific island during World War II.

And quaint is the overwhelming feeling of David Bondrow's production of the classic show, which employs a cast of Western New Yorkers and out-of-towners to mixed effect.

Viewed from a certain angle, the anachronisms and naïveté of the show -- conceived by men with little experience of war -- can be refreshing. And there's much to be said for giving yourself over to a simple love story unfolding in unfamiliar surroundings, set to some of the most endearing songs ever written for the theater.

Bondrow's production at the Lancaster Opera House in many ways reaches the high standards he has set over the past several years as the venue's artistic director. Certainly the effect of his hard work was in evidence during the sold-out opening night performance, when the Opera House overflowed with excited theatergoers eager to take in a familiar classic.

The show's ensemble numbers -- "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame," "Honey Bun" and others -- burst with energy and land precisely on their marks. David Dwyer's set, with its painted backdrop of Bali Ha'i and stacks of gray boxes, achieves the perfect tone.

But it is in some key individual performances where the production falters, occasionally losing its professional drive before snapping back into gear. The shifts, which are symptomatic of the cast's wide range of experience, can be jarring.

As the brash sailor Luther Billis, Elliot F. Fox is a paragon of comic timing, inflecting his performance with just the right amount of Abbott and Costello-esque antics while adding his own charming vocabulary of quirks. Johnny Wilson, fresh out of Brigham Young University, does a fine job embodying the yearning and internal conflict of Lieutenant Cable, who falls in love with a Tonkinese girl (Mamiko Nakatsugawa) he later refuses to marry.

And as Emile de Becque -- a character who may as well be constructed out of cardboard -- Andrew Cummings squeezes all the humanity and charm he can out of the role. His baritone has the intended effect.

Maghan Cobham, a recent SUNY Fredonia graduate who plays the lead role of the cornfed ensign Nellie Forbush, gives able renditions of key songs, especially "A Wonderful Guy." But she has room to grow in the role, especially when it comes to making some of the show's fustier pieces of dialogue register with audiences on an emotional level. It is a difficult task, and Cobham is sure to grow more comfortable in the role with each performance.

As the comic character Bloody Mary, import Carla Ogden sometimes struggles with the songs "Bali Hai'I" and "Happy Talk," but more than makes up for it by delivering plenty of belly laughs.

It doesn't help that music director Fran Landis' orchestra lacks the rhythmic tightness of past Opera House musical productions, or that its string section was out of tune for much of the opening night performance.

Even so, there's much to redeem this high-spirited if uneven production of a beloved classic. After a few more run-throughs, there's likely to be even more.

Theater Review

2.5 stars (out of four)

"South Pacific" runs through Nov. 26 in the Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave., Lancaster. Tickets are $10 to $30. Call 683-1776 or visit

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