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TV Review: There's nothing like Glenn Close in TV version of 'South Pacific'

Sunday, March 25, 2001

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

A World War II plane soars into a sweet Pacific dawn. "Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'South Pacific'" reads the title as the plane glides over storybook islands; "Glenn Close" ...

 
 
"South Pacific"

hen: 8 p.m. tomorrow on ABC.

tarring: Glenn Close, Robert Pastorelli, Harry Connick Jr. and Rade Sherbedgia

   
 

STOP! Glenn Close?

What can she be doing in "South Pacific"? No, this isn't some lost movie from two decades back, but a brand-new film airing tomorrow night on ABC. So have they brought Lt. Cable's Philadelphia mother on board as narrator? Turned Emile de Becque into Emily? Remade Bloody Mary as a blonde?

Not to fear. The 50-something Close does indeed play Nellie Forbush, the perky nurse from Little Rock, back when that signaled hick. But, no, this isn't some act of menopausal vanity by an actress who is, you note, one of the film's producers. Instead, this Nellie has evolved from the original twentysomething -- first played in 1949 by 46-year-old Mary Martin, but that was on stage -- into perky middle age, and it works.

The change is clear right off as we see Nellie taking a batch of newly arrived nurses on a tour of the island base. As the camera pans their virginal youth, picking out a couple of conventional Nellies in the process, you realize Close's forthright, spiky-haired, motherly zest makes her a Nellie of a different sort. Clearly she will make a much more plausible mate for Emile, whose "Some Enchanted Evening" cradle-snatching passion always did seem a trifle unseemly.

I caught only one obvious change, a reference in Nellie's "Cockeyed Optimist" song to her being "mature and incurably green." But what Lawrence D. Cohen's teleplay also should have done is invent her a past. If the middle-aged Emile's past is such an issue, why isn't this middle-aged Nellie's?

Well, it is a musical comedy, after all. The geography is still just as vague -- what are adjacent Tahiti (not named) and Bali Hai (lovingly photographed and subject of Bloody Mary's famous song) doing near the Japanese shipping lanes?

But director Richard Pearce has adapted well to the greater realism imposed on the story by film. He gives us a much fuller sense of the native islanders, the French planter aristocracy and even the background war. As played by the diminutive Lori Tan Chinn (no roly-poly belter, she), Bloody Mary is feistier and more foul-mouthed, an ageless con artist who clearly has her daughter for sale (though marriage is still the price). The film's final shot of them by the roadside, hawking souvenirs to the departing troops, is casually heartbreaking.

Pearce and Cohen are also true to the musical's serious theme, the insidious strength of racism, deeply American and anti-American, too. Nellie's and Cable's internal struggles are feelingly dramatized. Daringly for 1949, "South Pacific" ends with a multiethnic family -- American, French and Polynesian. Added here are shots of black soldiers, clearly segregated by unit but, in counterpoint to Cable's antiracism protest, working with white soldiers to build the airstrip.

Still, musicals inevitably remain part fantasy. In concretizing the long final songless stretch -- we get a whole mini-adventure movie when Emile and Joe Cable spy on the Japanese -- this "South Pacific" nearly downgrades itself from a musical into a drama with music. Plot takes over even more completely than on stage. The story gains credence, but some magic is lost.

In characterization, the only obvious softening is in Robert Pastorelli's Billis, a Bronx Bilko more lovable right from the start than Ray Walston's immortal scrounger. Harry Connick Jr. plays Cable with a nice balance of passionate smolder and WASPy noblesse, and Rade Sherbedgia (a new name to me, in spite of his "Mission: Impossible 2" credit) is a handsome Emile, more wiry and less ponderous than many a stage version, as fits the increased realism.

You can see this in how Pearce films the songs as natural extensions of conversation. Of course, as Rodger, Hammerstein and original director Joshua Logan wrote them, every one is secured precisely in a specific moment, anchored to a character's precise intention: "Some Enchanted Evening" is Emile's first pitch to Nellie, "Bali Hai" is how Bloody Mary seduces Cable, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" is how Cable protests his own racism.

The greatest test is the first song. It's like that moment in modern Shakespeare films when you hear the first blank verse -- how will that convention merge with screen realism? In "South Pacific," the first song is the robust production number, "Nothing Like a Dame." It catches you by surprise, starting conversationally between Billis and Cable, then gradually expanding to larger and larger groups of soldiers, sailors and Seabees, swelling into the production number it has to be before ending up as a single quiet word from Billis. I bought it, but I'm a stage guy. I'd like to hear what younger viewers think.

The other production numbers are handled with comparable naturalism: "Bloody Mary," "Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair," "Corny As Kansas in August." In the latter two, choreographer Vincent Paterson has the tact to avoid any real show dancing, just the sort of improvised and amateur stuff that the nurses would have picked up from watching movie musicals back home.

Movie musicals -- remember them? I don't think this one has the magic that a good "South Pacific" does on stage, but my eyes did mist up at the climax, when the supposedly dead Emile returns to find Nellie with his children.

That whole moment happens on Close's fine, quietly expressive face. I've never thought her as wonderful on film as she is on stage, but she carries this off with energy and heart. Maybe movie musicals are making a cautious comeback, thanks very much to TV.

And maybe the crusade by those Michael Crawford fanatics isn't so hopeless after all. If Nellie can be aged to fit Close on screen, why can't the Phantom become an elderly gentleman? It might make him even creepier.



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