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'South Pacific' still hits the high notes

It's pretty hard to go wrong with Rodgers and Hammerstein, let alone when staging what is arguably their greatest hit, that singular piece of ultra-reliable musical theater known as "South Pacific."

In a charming, if not particularly original, take on this grand old chestnut of the Broadway stage, Camelot Theatre is all but guaranteed a full house over the holiday season. At Sunday's matinee performance, there was barely a seat to be had; the house was packed to the gills with patrons who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the show.

The assembled cast galloped through all of the famous standards at a steady pace, and while at least two musical cues were bungled, the performers who fell victim to those errors recovered well enough, and the audience didn't seem to mind.

The story was as enjoyable as ever — dual romances taking shape on an island in the middle of a distant blue ocean. The first is a budding May-December affair between Emile de Becque (Don Matthews) and Nelly Forbush (Stephanie Jones.) The second is a more forbidden tryst between a young military man (Eric Solis) and his Polynesian sweetheart (Jay Lynn Zheng.) These well acted interludes make up the space between such reliable show-tune favorites as "Some Enchanted Evening" and "There is Nothing like a Dame."

Matthews and Jones manage to carry off a touching performance, thanks to good casting, good looks and particularly strong singing and acting from both artists. Matthews was in particularly fine fettle Sunday afternoon as a man of a certain age with a dubious past. Jones does well as a sassy but somehow simultaneously ditzy blond nurse who is just past the age of relying entirely upon her looks to get by in life. The pair have sufficient chemistry to hold up much of the show.

Solis and Zheng are less convincing as star-crossed lovers in an era when interracial relationships are just not done. Their initial meeting — helped in part by some lovely choreography by Beatriz Abella — is the most exciting moment of their entire relationship from an audience perspective.

Also notable in the cast is the ever-amusing Erny Rosales as Seabee Luther Billis, an entrepreneurial sailor who storms the stage with testosterone-soaked glee, accompanied by a group of sidekick seamen who are always hungry for female companionship. The bawling and brawling Billis meets his match in Bloody Mary (Beatriz Abella), who is as tough and streetwise as Billis could ever hope to be.

Playing the straight men of the piece, Jack Seybold and Paul R. Jones are all straight-backed military men as Captain Bracket and his military attache, Commander Harbison. Seybold's acting was the other anchor point on this merry vessel. Keep an eye on him. A delightful interpretation that is part Douglas MacArthur and part Barney Fife, Seybold's Harbison is one of the two best things about this production (the other being Matthews' Emile).

Behind all the glitz of "South Pacific" are heavier themes of lost love, regret, racism and the toll of war. Even if you've seen it a few times before (and most of us have), it's still worth seeing again, if only to remind us of the impact that ignorance and bellicosity can take on the human soul; regardless of the color or gender of the body in which that soul resides.

All does not end as well as it should for the habitues of this strategically important South Sea atoll, and yet "South Pacific" remains uplifting and enjoyable as ever it was. Enjoy the show.

"South Pacific" plays at Camelot Theatre in Talent from Nov. 30 through Jan. 8.

— Reach Ashland freelance writer Jeffrey Gillespie at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

The cast of Camelot Theatre's 'South Pacific.' Photo by Steve Sutfin/Brian O'Connor