“South Pacific” has always stood out among mid-century American musicals due to its seriousness of tone and willingness to take on issues of racism that went beyond the ordinary purview of a commercial musical of its era. Its wartime setting and mission-driven storyline, mixed with dual love affairs and relatively intimate songs, make it a good fit for television adaptation, and this ABC version captures many of its stronger qualities before giving way to fabricated action scenes at the end. It will likely attract, and satisfy, an older audience who recalls the lush delight of “Some Enchanted Evening” and other classic Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes.
The truth is that while the last several years have seen multiple musical adaptations on television, none of them has been outstanding. Probably the best overall was “Cinderella,” also a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, in part because that was an obscure work to begin with and didn’t have much history to burden it. “Gypsy,” the event that started the trend, was worthwhile for Bette Midler’s singing alone but certainly didn’t eclipse the film version. This version of “South Pacific” similarly won’t outshine the slightly leaden but visually luxuriant 1958 film, but it offers its own, somewhat simplified pleasures.
Glenn Close takes on the role of the optimistic Ensign Nellie Forbush, and while she’s perhaps past the right age for the role, she gives it an earnestness that dampens the dumb-blonde naivete of the original. Her love affair with the Frenchman Emile de Becque, played very strongly by Rade Sherbedgia, comes off as extremely believable, although the frivolity of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” seems forced.
Close has a strong voice — she got her start as a star in Broadway’s “Barnum” — but not a nuanced one. What she does deliver is a clear and sympathetic performance in a role that wouldn’t be written today, a Southern woman who recognizes that overcoming prejudice is far harder than she imagined. Sherbedgia (“Snatch,” “Mission: Impossible 2”) sings his memorable bass melodies with effective sincerity.
Harry Connick Jr. is particularly well cast as Lieutenant Joe Cable, the war hero who nearly falls apart when he falls for a Tonkinese girl (Natalie Mendoza). Connick performs Cable’s songs — “Younger than Springtime,” “You’ve Got to Be Taught” — with his own unique timbre, although in both cases he’s physically stationary, not the most imaginative choice on the part of director Richard Pearce and choreographer Vincent Paterson.
Previous TV musicals, those from Storyline producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, tended to accept the staginess of the form, whereas with “South Pacific,” producers Michael Jaffe and Howard Braunstein, along with Pearce, go for a more realistic, filmic sensibility, making sparing use of production numbers. It comes across as unpretentious, but also not especially energetic.
The film, shot mostly in Australia with exteriors from Tahiti, looks scenic but still has the blandness that comes with the speedy schedule of television movies. Pearce manages to give the piece a flow despite the fact that the songs tend to be bunched together, and his and writer Lawrence D. Cohen’s efforts at building tension toward the end with an action sequence don’t quite come off, in part because some of the shooting — and storytelling — feels patched together.
In a supporting role, Lori Tan Chinn (“Mickey Blue Eyes”) is boldly effective as Bloody Mary, never trying to turn this aggressive stereotype into a politically correct statue.