South Pacific

March 2001 - ABC-TV

Review by John Kenrick

South Pacific has one of the most vocally lush scores in the Rodgers and Hammerstein cannon. So what was the point of filming it with singers who have no idea how to handle a showtune? As we careen into the 21st Century, vocal mediocrity on the musical stage and screen seems to be the order of the day. NY Times critic Ben Brantley recently called this the triumph of karaoke, and he has (for once) a valid point. Audiences that once delighted in musical performers with extraordinary talent now feel more comfortable listening to singers that sound as middling as your neighbor warbling in the shower.

Such was clearly the case with ABC-TV's new adaptation of South Pacific. Glenn Close was dramatically nuanced and vocally delicious as Nellie Forbush, the nurse from Little Rock who finds her prejudices challenged by romance in the midst of World War II. But her co-stars, while visually appealing, massacred song after song.

I'm not one of those purists who think Emile has to be played by an opera star, but the role does require a decent singer. Rade Sherbedgia may have a rather off-beat sex appeal, but his wheezy rendition of "Some Enchanted Evening" is just plain blah – and fact be told, at times his singing is downright flat. Please don't tell me that there are no male TV stars qualified to sing this role! For starters, soap star Ron Raines is one of the best Emile's ever – why did they go to Yugoslavia to find an actor who's singing couldn't pass muster in a dark pub?

Harry Connick Jr. is gorgeous as Lt. Cable, and I'm told his shirtless scenes caused a stir in gay bars and co-ed dorms all across the country. But he sings "Younger Than Springtime" with a breathy pop style that wastes a soaring melody. Connick's slavish attempts to imitate Sinatra were once charming, but one can't help wishing he had put half as much effort into developing a personal vocal style as he has into developing his pecs. His chest is the only thing on screen that competes with the dazzling Australian coastal scenery.

The sailors and nurses of the ensemble look and sound great, and Joe Pastorelli is perfectly cast as the scruffy Billis.  But most of the supporting roles have been placed in forgettable hands. Bloody Mary is supposed to be eccentric and compelling, not a screeching harpy. Why would Cable pay the slightest attention to her, let alone head off to Bali Hai?  And casting someone who is merely attractive as Liat made Cable's attraction to her hard to believe. For this so-so pseudo-virgin he would give up the girl back home? I don't think so.

The much heralded new script merely re-shuffles the songs and scenes, leaving most of the original dialogue intact. I don't see that its any kind of an improvement. One major objection – I would gladly kick the idiot who decided to turn the glorious final note of "There is Nothing Like a Dame" into a dead-on-arrival moment of dialogue.

As far as I'm concerned, if a classic musical is good enough to be remade for television then it is also good enough to leave essentially intact. Bette Midler's TV version of Gypsy stuck to the original script and was a joy to see. My advice to ABC and other networks is to stop rethinking these masterworks. Just cast them with qualified singing actors and let the material speak – and sing – for itself. Had they done so this time around, this South Pacific would have been a treasure, not just an embarrassing also-ran.

I'm off to find a piano bar where people can sing and showtunes are king. If you're already there, save a seat by the Yamaha for me and tell the piano player to get out the score to South Pacific – we have some making up to do.

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