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At the risk of abandoning any further claim to rock-and-roll credentials and admitting full membership in geezerdom, I hereby publicly admit preferring Rodgers and Hammerstein to Pete Townshend. At least that was the verdict last week, as the opening of Theatre Under the Stars' revival of South Pacific coincided with the touring visit of the Broadway stage version of "The Who's Tommy." Tommy has legend, youth, hype, glitz, sizzle, spectacle, power chords and pinball. South Pacific has a book, lyrics, emotional and historical resonance, and several of the most memorable show tunes in the popular American canon. I rest my case.

To a degree, it's apples and oranges, and I won't belabor the comparison. Townshend's concept album as stage-play has an undeniable, unrelenting energy and several rock-anthem hooks that suggest the concert power of rock music -- when performed by a rock band such as The Who. ("Pinball Wizard" may be the most oddly powerful pop story-song ever.) But strung together in a puerile allegory about the corruption of innocence and the danger of fame, and now topped off with an even sillier moral -- "be normal" -- Tommy feels like a nostalgic anthology piece played by a cover band. Who, indeed, are you?

There's also plenty of nostalgia to South Pacific, of course, which is full of frankly sentimentalized history and music. Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers took James Michener's war-time anthology, Tales of the South Pacific, and transformed it into a post-war elegy for lost American innocence and a fond remembrance of heroic times past. But its central themes -- the evils of racism and the importance of cross-cultural understanding -- make it forward-looking as well. Some things, regrettably, never seem to change.

TUTS' South Pacific features Cathy Rigby as imperturbably perky Ensign Nellie Forbush, the brightest flower of Little Rock ever to land in the South Seas. Rigby is much better at being chirpy than lovelorn, but she lights up the stage and sings well Nellie's signature tunes, "Cockeyed Optimist," "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair" and "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy." If she seems a bit corny, well, as the song has it, Kansas in August is corny too.

The best voice on stage belongs to Vernon Hartman as the mysterious French planter Emile, who sets the period romantic tone of the whole production with his powerful baritone on "Some Enchanted Evening." The slender tenor of Don Burroughs' Cable suffers somewhat by comparison, but that contrast is also built into the roles, and Cable's lament for his forsaken love, "Younger than Springtime," has real poignance. Other standouts include the comic roles, particularly the dominating presence and voice of Sharon Wilkins as Bloody Mary and the all-purpose mugging and incidental maritime belly-dancing of Stephen Berger as Luther Billis. Indeed, on the big choral numbers, especially "There Is Nothing Like a Dame," the whole ensemble is strong.

TUTS has taken some intermittent and justifiable criticism for a too-safe repertory, of being too much at the mercy of its own traditionalist audience. Like opera buffs, musical fans do not warm readily to new and challenging work. The old standards call out the promise of a celebratory return to a more romantic, paradisal time. South Pacific delivers on the promise.

-- Michael King

 
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