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A Conventional Dither 

By MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & "R & lt;/span & acism is bad." Not exactly the newsflash today that it was a half-century ago (even if we still haven't fully learned the lesson). Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific is appreciated today more for its pleasant melodies than its social criticism.





In the Civic's current production (through Oct. 27), most of the leads and most of the songs are performed quite well, so they're batting better than average. After director Yvonne A.K. Johnson treats us to a series of vintage World War II photos, Ken Burns-style, throughout the overture, it soon becomes evident that the stars of this show will be Michael J. Muzatko as the French plantation owner and Marianne McLaughlin as the Polynesian dealer in used goods.





It's refreshing to hear Emile deBecque sung other than operatically. Muzatko takes "Some Enchanted Evening" slowly and elegantly, bringing it closer to genuine feeling than histrionic display. He kneels to hug his kids; he rages when he needs to in the military commander's office; he's dignified in his wooing of Nellie. Even if his accent sometimes wanders out of France and into Germany, Muzatko still bestrides the stage in his ice cream suits. It's a performance full of restraint and dignity, and it's distinct from other roles Muzatko has played. He's acting, folks, and he makes deBecque into a hero in wartime.





McLaughlin wrestles a role that could descend into racist stereotype and pins it. Bloody Mary's particular brand of hootchy-kootchy is meant to accumulate profit and swindle others, even her own daughter. But McLaughlin comes on with such infectious glee that we overlook Mary's manipulativeness. "Bali Ha'i" is a show-stopper: With Bloody Mary always angling for her next buck, the interlude feels like a tribute to an ideal, a better world. "Bali Ha'i" plants that world firmly in Polynesia, not in the war-ravaged mess that the show's white folks are mired in.





Sergeant Luther Billis -- if he's going to be stuck in this lousy war, he's gonna make a few dollars while he's at it -- is often played more broadly, as more of a wiseacre. Jerry Sciarrio, in contrast, discovers sly manipulations in the role. A master of the dry retort, Sciarrio doesn't intimidate the people he's bilking -- he just outsmarts 'em. Under that coconut-shell bra, tattooed belly and grass skirt, Sciarrio creates a serious under-layer for what could be a mere caricature.





As Nellie Forbush, the nurse from Arkansas who falls for the dashing Monsieur deBecque, Briane Green dances better than she sings. Unfortunately, Green doesn't get enough opportunity to show off her considerable dancing skills, even when she's trying to shampoo a certain someone right out of her hair. Her drunk-on-love solo in "A Wonderful Guy" felt too restrained, but she has the self-confident jauntiness -- and willingness to admit her mistakes -- that Nellie's characterization requires. In the variety show -- the non-plot-advancing interlude that fills out Act Two -- Green sparkles in the sailor suit of "Honey Bun," making herself all the more adorable because we know there's sadness beneath her character's forced silliness.





In one scene, Sciarrio and Green get more lighthearted banter out of a discussion of pressed pleats (shading over into sexual innuendo) than you'd think possible -- a wonderful example of how subtlety trumps overt sexuality every time.





The Seabees, sailors and Marines in the men's chorus, meanwhile, were energetic horndogs in "There's Nothin' Like a Dame," with choreographers Kathie Doyle-Lipe and Troy Nickerson accenting all the aw-shucks joshing with some acrobatic comedy.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here are weaknesses, however. The introduction of Liat to Lieutenant Joe Cable is cringe-worthy, and not just because Bloody Mary is pimping out her own daughter for maximum cash. Cable and Liat are thrown together in a you-makee-whoopee-now plot convenience, and Jaylan Renz and Chloe Maier do nothing to rise above contrivance. Renz's voice thins and cracks on the crescendo of "Younger Than Springtime" ("heaven and earth are you to me"), though he recovers with righteous anger in the brief, pointedly anti-racist song "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught," which made Hammerstein's lyrics so controversial in 1949.





During "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," the women's chorus managed to take most of that number's energy and let it circle right down the drain: conventional movements and self-conscious laughter don't help Nellie paint a picture of independence.





Peter Hardie, however, provides a whole series of nicely detailed sets -- from plantation terrace to military bivouac. A special-effect mountain stream on Bali Ha'i really did make the evening seem enchanted. In addition, Hardie's lighting design nicely isolates Emile and Nellie for the "Twin Soliloquies" that lead into "Some Enchanted Evening"; and the first act's ending image -- Emile, disappointed in love, at the balustrade under the moonlight -- was exquisite. Like much of the evening, it was pleasant if not innovative.

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