Thursday, October 8, 2009

Yesterday's happy ending

Full disclosure - I'm not a huge musical fan. I know many are timeless entertainments, with classic, catchy songs beloved around the world. Maybe I'm a narrative junky, but I always want more information on the characters than musicals tend to provide. All those singing interruptions too often take time away from character and plot development. Whenever the conversation starts to get interesting, someone breaks into song. But my husband wanted to go see the Broadway revival of South Pacific and so, we went. Which is as it should be since I've made him sit through Greg Brown (on a particularly folky night), Manhattan Transfer, and an excruciatingly minimalist modern dance in which the choreographer sat in a chair, facing away from the audience, and made agonizingly subtle motions with her back muscles.

It was my turn to do something outside of my aesthetic comfort zone.

On with the show. First, the classic songs. Bali Hai is an icon of musical kitsch - the melody itself remains resolutely so, no matter how you orchestrate it. There is Nothing Like a Dame? Silly, corny and sexist. Yes, there is nothing like a person of the female sex. Except, if you are generalizing to this absurd degree, all other persons of the female sex. And then there's Wash that Man Right Out of my Hair which is always fun, no matter who sings it, because the lyrics are so charming. As for Some Enchanted Evening, the song has a deep, romantic emotional truth - anyone who has ever loved remembers that first time your eyes met, that feeling that anything could happen.

Based on a compilation of several short stories from James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning first book Tales of the South Pacific the musical is set on a Polynesian island during World War II. The American sailors stationed there are going stir-crazy, waiting for their orders. Our heroine is Nelly Forbush, a Navy Nurse who has fallen in love with a dashing French plantation owner named Emil Debeque. Widower Emil has two half-Polynesian, toffee-hued children whose existence he has not yet divulged to Nelly.

Being half French, I appreciated the Debeque character, an honorable, decent guy and not a racist (if you forgive the fact that indigenous servants are tending to his life of white privilege on their island). I kept waiting for Emil to put on a beret, surrender to his poodle and dissolve into a pool of cliche slime. Fortunately, for once, the French character didn't turn out to be a scumbag, drug dealer, sleaze ball, coward, womanizer or cheat. Thank you, James Michener. As for Nellie, she's a tirelessly spunky little Southern broad with attitude and a down-home naivete.

Anyway, Emile DeBeque throws a party for Nellie, at the end of which she meets his children. At first, thinking the kids belong to Emile's manservant, she drawls that they are the "Keee-you-test thahngs" she has ever seen. But when she learns that Emile is their father, Nellie recoils in shock. The realization that her paramour has brown children and has ostensibly had sex with a brown woman - horrors - more than once, is just too much. Nelly has a hissy fit and storms off, we later find out, to request a transfer.

Meanwhile, Joe Cable, a dashing young Princeton-educated Marine on a secret mission to turn the tide of the war in the Pacific, is having his own Island fantasy with a Tonkinese girl named Liat. The actress playing Liat in this production is maybe 5 feet tall and very young, and her Joe towers over her at about 6'4. Their seduction scene comes off as child molestation, or at least the exploitation of a barely adult woman. It makes you so uncomfortable, you have to wonder whether the casting was intentional. Especially as Joe is smarmily singing "younger than Spring time". Of course, later he mournfully admits he can't possibly bring some Gauguin babe home to Mother Dear and chalks it all up to his upbringing. Now if you can have that degree of insight, why not keep thinking? Why? Because Joseph must go home and take his rightful place in the Wasp ruling class. He abandons Liat, leaving her his grandfather's watch as a souvenir. Or payment for services received.

Joe Cable ultimately recruits Emile De Beque as his civilian partner on the Spy mission: to sneak onto an island occupied by the Japanese and observe their maneuvers, reporting back to the US military by radio. Debeque knows the island and has contacts there who can help. The mission is a success but poor Joe never makes it back to the states live out his life as a member of the Yankee elite. News of Joe's demise reaches base camp and Nurse Nelly fears Emile, too, has gone to meet his maker. She suddenly realizes WHAT'S IMPORTANT. And so the play ends with Nelly ensconced in Emile's plantation, where she has apparently decided to take over mothering his kids. When the Frenchman turns up alive and unannounced, he quietly observes the nurturing way Nelly feeds his children soup and is so touched by her maternal behavior that he takes up where they left off.

If you're living in the Obama era, (and an vituperatively vocal minority of Americans are not) it's hard to relate to the plot of South Pacific. You don't WANT elegant Emile to end up with small-minded Nellie. Yes, I know, some individuals genuinely and profoundly change. I also know lots of people revert to their bigoted upbringing as soon as they get mad at their spouse. How often does a stone racist like Nelly do a 180 and become an enlightened humanist? For God's sake, it's 1950. And the woman is from Little Rock Arkansas, not known for its Civil Rights street cred. Wouldn't it be a healthier reaction for Emile to not want Nelly near his children, whom she may deep down consider the products of miscegenation?

So that is the problem with South Pacific. When it came out in 1950, many needed to hear its message. Today, it's hard to feel warm and fuzzy about that nice Emil Debeque, with his romantic aura and Enchanted Evening baritone, walking off into the sunset with narrow minded little Nell Forbush. According to modern mores, her behavior should be a deal breaker. If she has something to be mad about, it's the fact that the guy let things get this far romantically before springing two kids on her. That's a contemporary and justifiable beef. But no, she's too busy tripping out over a dead brown woman to whom Emile was legally married. And while the death of any young man in combat is always tragic, when we learned of Joe's, I found myself thinking oh well, one less frat boy. Joe's dalliance with Liat was never intended to be more than an exotic interlude. He used her because he could, and he convinced himself he loved her just long enough to justify his own behavior.

You have to suspend your contemporary attitudes about race, and racists, to enjoy South Pacific for what it is, an entertaining artifact of the past. The set designer certainly understood that - you can't go understated on this one. It's gotta be realistic, it's gotta be technicolor and if you don't throw in the ocean and at least one palm tree, you're fired.

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