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Review: Opera North’s ‘South Pacific’ Gets a Classic Musical Just Right

American servicemen crowd around a Boar's Tooth Bracelet sold by "Bloody Mary" during a dress rehearsal for Opera North's production of South Pacific at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on July 30, 2013. 

Valley News - Sarah Priestap

American servicemen crowd around a Boar's Tooth Bracelet sold by "Bloody Mary" during a dress rehearsal for Opera North's production of South Pacific at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on July 30, 2013. Valley News - Sarah Priestap

It’s not unusual for each generation to say to the generations that follow — our music, our films, our books were better. They sure don’t write them like that anymore, is the wistful refrain. But in the case of South Pacific , the musical with a score by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, they really don’t.

I’m not sure anyone could because the culture from which South Pacific arose is so vastly different from ours. That can be said of any work of art, of course, but South Pacific, which was based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific , has qualities in short supply in today’s noisy, cynical culture. It’s sincere, not in the least ironic, steeped in patriotism both jubilant and quiet, and earnest in its treatment of racial prejudice.

But South Pacific is great precisely because it is all those things — as corny as Kansas in August, as gay as a daisy in May. Its heart is worn firmly on its sleeve. Not least, it also has one of American musical theater’s great scores.

If Hammerstein’s disarming, wry lyrics distinguished Oklahoma, then Rodgers’ lush, soaring music elevates South Pacific . From the first notes of the overture that anticipate the song Bali Ha’i , the audience is caught up on a wave of yearning and expectation not unlike the first moments of Puccini’s La Boheme .

Opera North’s production of South Pacific , which opened this weekend at the Lebanon Opera House, and continues through Aug. 17, gets this American classic just right, thanks to its exceptionally well-cast ensemble and the accomplished stage direction by Gabriel Barre, who brings a vivid naturalism to the show.

Nothing on stage seems forced, nothing and no one looks out of place, the actions and behavior of the characters seem logical, and there’s always something going on somewhere, even if it’s just a small gesture that brings a character to life. Barre, who was nominated for a Tony Award as an actor, has a long list of directing productions to his credit, and that experience shows.

South Pacific was prescient in the way it handled the question of racism. Nellie Forbush, the musical’s heroine, in love with the French planter Emile DeBecque, can’t reconcile herself to the fact that DeBecque was previously married to a Polynesian woman.

And although Lt. Joseph Cable, the show’s second male lead, is crazy about Liat, daughter of Bloody Mary, the island woman who trades with the G.I.s, he can’t imagine marrying her and bringing her home to affluent Main Line Philadelphia because she’s not white.

For all the buoyance of the love songs ( Some Enchanted Evening , Twin Soliliquies , I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy , Younger than Springtime ), Rodgers and Hammerstein depict the dangers of being in love with love and what happens when gauzy romantic fiction runs up against reality.

Less heralded but just as unconventional is the fact that South Pacific was about men at war, in a war arena. Although South Pacific might strike some of us now as an exercise in nostalgia, imagine a team like Rodgers and Hammerstein writing a musical today set in Iraq or Afghanistan. The war was only four years over when the show opened, and the terrible events were still fresh, which made the show a risk.

These men do their duty, but they’re not George M. Cohan’s flag-draped Yankee Doodle: they gamble, they trade in the black market, they have sex with island women. The show pays tribute to them but doesn’t idolize them. Our romance with South Pacific stems perhaps as much from the sense of national purpose that pervades it, as it does from its romantic turmoil.

Opera North’s production is lucky to have Kaitlyn Costello in the role of Nellie Forbush. Costello is fresh and funny as the naive nurse from Little Rock, Ark. who falls for the older, sophisticated Emile DeBecque. Nellie has to be winsome but not cloying, unschooled but not a chump, which can be tough to pull off, but Costello achieves that balance, and her voice, while not always operatically powerful, is clear and pretty.

As DeBecque, who’s lived in the South Pacific for years, escaping from his own past in France, Harold Wilson has a sonorous voice that is at its best in big numbers like Some Enchanted Evening : he draws out the final “Never let her go,” with a sweet soulfulness. He isn’t quite the actor that Costello is, but the magic of the music carries them as a couple.

Tyler Putnam, a Dartmouth graduate who has also participated in the Young Artists program, is outstanding as the wily Luther Billis, the comic heart of the show, and in some ways, the show’s hero; the guy who takes care of the guys, and the girls, the guy who makes things work. His singing voice is robust and clearly articulated, and he has a natural comic instinct. Melissa Fajardo, as the combustible Bloody Mary, is also charismatic. Stephen Carroll is particularly fine as Lieutenant Cable, the young man wrestling with his love for Liat.

In two non-singing roles, as Capt. George Brackett and Cmdr. William Harbison, Mark Cavanaugh and Thomas Summerall, respectively, have the same kind of easy authority as the other singers in the show. Finally, conductor Louis Burkot has a wonderful swinging feel for the rhythms of the music, giving us the high drama when it’s called for but not ignoring the less obvious subtleties of the score.

“South Pacific” continues at the Lebanon Opera House through Aug. 17. For more information and tickets, call the Opera House Box Office at 603-448-0400 or go to http://www.operanorth.org.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.