'South Pacific' offers grand musical

Mike Dunham
The Anchorage Opera production of "South Pacific" opened in the Discovery Theater at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts on Friday. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical runs through April 10. Nellie Forbush (Amanda Crider) and the other Navy nurses perform in the "I'm going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" scene.
Anchorage Opera photo
Stewpot (Jon Lang), left, and Professor (David Braun), in the grass skirts, flank Luther Billis (Joel Benson) as Billis tries to convince Lt. Cable (Benjamin Robinson), right, to take a boat to the island of Bali Ha'i.
Anchorage Opera photo

Anchorage Opera has dabbled with musicals before and staged notable productions of operettas. But the current offering, "South Pacific," presents a sea change, so to speak -- a full-body embrace of the popular American sung theater form.

Other companies have been adding more musicals to their mix, mainly as a way to expand repertoire; nearly a century has passed since the last grand opera was written that has stuck around. Opera groups have the stage and sound resources to pull off big musicals in a big way. But the trend also may be intended to expand audiences beyond the core constituency of buffs and make serious musical theater more appetizing to people whose only language is English.

Anchorage Opera seems to be calculating that will be the case. It has scheduled 10 performances over the course of 10 days; four or five performances have been the rule in the recent past.

Despite the pop beat of songs like "Bloody Mary Is the Girl I Love" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," "South Pacific" is certainly serious, with themes of death and loss, life-changing love, social pressure and prejudice. Robert Russell Bennett's masterful orchestration of both the major numbers and the pervasive background music played under the dialogue remains musically impressive, both as scoring and as arrangements of Richard Rodgers' tunes. And the music itself ranks as operatic in its grandest moments -- "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine."

Those grand moments fell mostly to Bohan Knezevic in the role of the Emile de Becque. Glaceia Henderson sang the part of Bloody Mary in Friday's opening night performance; she'll alternate with Lisa Willis. The principal American characters, nurse Nellie Forbush and Lt. Joe Cable, were played by youthful Amanda Crider and Benjamin Robinson. Joel Benson was the rascally Luther Billis.

Non-singing parts included David Haynes as Capt. Bracket and Nicole Chamberlin as Bloody Mary's daughter, Liat.

Under conductor Kelly Kuo, the orchestra was sometimes tenuous, but the choristers hit their marks singing and dancing. Directorial credits were shared by Shane Mitchell and Jeffrey Buchman. The quick-change sets let one scene roll smoothly into the next without significant breaks in the action.

A number of microphone problems were heard on opening night. But the Discovery Theatre audience seemed happy with the show. Applause was long and loud.

The management of the company hopes for more of that -- and is planning for it, actually. The 2011-12 50th anniversary season, found in the programs Friday night, will include a single performance of the new opera, Ricky Ian Gordon's "The Grapes of Wrath" (Nov. 5), four performances of Verdi's "Macbeth" (Feb. 18-26) and another 10 shows of another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "The Sound of Music" (March 30-April 7).

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.