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Saturday, April 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  Partly Cloudy


Four Seasons Theatre and Tom Wopat revive an American classic with South Pacific

Tom Wopat as Emile de Becque (left), Kawika Atchison as Jerome, Megan Liu as Ngana, and Alli Foss as Nellie Forbush in the Four Seasons Theatre production of <i>South Pacific</i>
Tom Wopat as Emile de Becque (left), Kawika Atchison as Jerome, Megan Liu as Ngana, and Alli Foss as Nellie Forbush in the Four Seasons Theatre production of South Pacific
Credit:Lorah Haskins
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You know Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein whether or not you think you do. That legendary team gave America some of its best-known musicals (Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music) and catchiest songs. They've permeated the culture to such a degree that, even if you've never seen South Pacific on stage, you can probably hum a few bars of "Some Enchanted Evening" or "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair."

If you'd like to catch the current Four Seasons Theatre production of South Pacific, you'd better act fast; the show's three-day run ends Sunday. Presented in a staged concert version led by director/choreographer Brian Cowing and music director Scott Foss, the show marks Four Seasons' second collaboration with Tom Wopat.

While most know Wopat from his starring role on The Dukes of Hazzard -- a show that's now been off the air for 25 years -- he has had a long career in theater and music, nabbing two Tony nominations along the way.

As with Four Seasons' show with Broadway stars Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley earlier this year, Wopat's presence as Emile de Becque provides some national-caliber star power. But Wopat also proves that he's an excellent singer on tunes like "Some Enchanted Evening," although higher notes reveal just a touch of hoarseness. Lower notes better showcase the richness and power of his voice.

The object of Wopat's affection in this tale of love amidst World War II is Allie Foss, a Verona native and daughter of opera singer Kitt Reuter-Foss. Foss is likable and plucky as Navy nurse Nellie Forbush. She does especially well with upbeat tunes like "I'm Gonna Wash That Man…" and "Honey Bun." Yet while she's clearly a talented performer, her accent (Nellie's from Little Rock, Ark.) tended to come and go.

The age difference between Wopat and Foss as Emile and Nellie is a touch distracting at first (Wopat, now in his late 50s, could easily be Foss' father). However, there's a funny moment in which Lt. Joseph Cable (Jordan Peterson) expresses amazement that Nellie could be in love with Emile. "I find that hard to believe. He's a middle-aged man," Cable says quite seriously, to which the audience on Friday night -- whose average age was probably Wopat's or older -- erupted in hoots.

South Pacific, which had its Broadway debut in 1949, has a certain nostalgia factor at this point, but it also deals with social themes. Nellie struggles to accept Emile after learning that he has two biracial children from his relationship with a now-deceased Polynesian woman.

While there were a few bumps in the evening -- a too-long overture at the beginning, followed by child performers who missed their cue on the first song -- Four Seasons' production is solid overall. In the absence of full sets -- in this concert version, the orchestra appears on stage behind the performers -- Monica Butler's fine costumes work extra-hard to establish a sense of time and place.

In the supporting roles, standouts include Lee Waldhart as Luther Billis (a Navy Seabee who bravely dons a coconut-shell bra and grass skirt at one point) and Nan Asuncion as Bloody Mary. Asuncion's gift for comedy makes her fine singing voice almost a surprise.

While certain elements of South Pacific may be discordant to contemporary audiences -- the references to "Japs," the broad ethnic humor surrounding the Bloody Mary role -- those elements are mixed with songs like "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," about how racial prejudices are passed from generation to generation. South Pacific remains an artifact of its time and one of the most enduring shows in American musical theater.

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