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Bigots on the Beach 

A current of prejudice accompanies South Pacific's great songs.

One of the secrets to success is being aware of your weaknesses as well as your strengths, and making decisions accordingly. Before Mary Martin agreed to play Nellie Forbush in South Pacific back in 1949, she insisted that there be no duets between her and co-star Ezio Pinza -- an unusual demand, since they were to play lovers. But she knew that if they sang together, his powerful operatic pipes were likely to incinerate her musical-comedy singing voice. As a result, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote "Twin Soliloquies," a lovely number where each person sings in turn, and a Broadway legend was created.

The current rendition of this deceptively deep musical drama is being presented by the Jewish Community Center in association with Cuyahoga Community College. Director Fred Sternfeld manages to highlight the production's many strengths, and where there are weaknesses, he finds a way to minimize the damage. Maneuvering his 60-person cast around the Tri-C stage (few individuals since Hannibal have moved masses of people so deftly), Sternfeld does justice to the romance, the comedy, the incredible songs, and the underlying issue of racism that makes this work so enduringly resonant.

The story follows the romance of Nellie, a young U.S. Army nurse on a tropical isle during World War II, and Emile de Becque, a middle-aged French plantation owner. Tom Fulton invests de Becque with a world-weary but charming sophistication as he woos naive Nellie from Arkansas, magnificently employing his hearty baritone on the love-struck "Some Enchanted Evening" and later in quiet despair with "This Nearly Was Mine." While Joan Ellison handles Nellie's singing duties superbly, she does not completely relax into her role, remaining a bit starched and standoffish when she's with Emile and even when she's among the other nurses in "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair." Fortunately, Fulton's love jones is bubbling over, and his amour is so convincing that he makes their relationship work.

As Bloody Mary, the happily conniving souvenir hawker on the island, Cheryl E. Campo is a revelation. Clutching grass skirts in one hand and shrunken heads in the other, Campo is a thorough delight as she relishes her greed as much as the new English phrases she learns ("You a stingy bastard!"). Campo also brings fresh dimensions to her two songs, "Bali Ha'i" and "Happy Talk." Lean Larry Nehring is a perfect Luther Billis, the scheming sailor who leads an excellent chorus of men in the rousing "There Is Nothing Like a Dame."

In the secondary love pairing, Lieutenant Cable falls for Bloody Mary's daughter, Liat, but his ingrained racial prejudice won't let him marry her. This echoes the difficulty Nellie has in accepting the two kids Emile fathered with a native woman. As Cable, Colin Cook delivers the insightful tune about bigotry, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," with more anger than conflicted resignation. And even though energy is spotty in the second act, Sternfeld's staging magic and the buoyantly natural choreography of Martin Cespedes makes this South Pacific a worthwhile destination.

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