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Center Stage

Thwacking waltzes and splendid surprises

9/17/2014

“South Pacific,” Des Moines Community Playhouse, Sept. 5-28, Wed. - Sat. 7:30 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.

“South Pacific,” Des Moines Community Playhouse, Sept. 5-28, Wed. – Sat. 7:30 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.

The attack comes in a song, and there’s no defense against it.

Late in the first act of “South Pacfic,” Ensign Nellie Forbush shucks off her reservations about Emile de Becque. An all-American girl out of Little Rock, she kisses the middle-aged French exile — a plantation owner in Polynesia — and then bursts into a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy.” While it’s always been a thwacking waltz, at the Playhouse, Amber Duimstra made it rowdy. She went on attack.

The enemy, so to speak, was the cluster of Navy girls around her. They’re a long way from home, and before de Becque showed up, they had delivered the opposite sort of number: “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.” Now, as soon as the Frenchman leaves, they laugh at their moonstruck pal.

But Nelly fought back. She might’ve been “corny as Kansas in August,” in the song’s famed opening, but at its climax she had her chin out, defiant: “I’m in love, I’m in love…” In yo’ face, girlfriends.

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There’s no defense. There’s a lump in your throat before you know it.

I can’t say whether this approach was Duimstra’s idea. It could’ve come from director John Viars, or from Edward Corpus, who plays de Becque. The lovers’ chemistry owes a lot to Corpus, indulging his girl’s hijinks, happily playing catchup. Regardless, the result is a Playhouse show of rare emotional power. Last year’s “Les Miserables” offered a greater spectacle (and a far better set, without lame touches like green palm-tree cutouts), but it was never so moving.

Forbush is the soul of “South Pacific,” the fulcrum of the drama, and she’s singing about the very stuff that sent kids like her to war. They fought not just for corn and Kansas but against the race hatred that slaughtered Undesirables all over the world. In the show, racism gets in the way of love.

The Playhouse production fails to generate the same impact in the parallel love affair between a Marine and an island girl. Jonathan Brugioni, playing the soldier, never quite loosened up. To be fair, his character needs to come across as stiff at first, and he certainly brought the snark to “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” the most direct outcry against prejudice.

Still, Brugioni could’ve used more of the swagger shown by Eric Deutz, playing Seabee Luther Billis. A Drake undergrad, Deutz understood that his man may be a clown and a conniver, but he’s got a conscience. He understood the power of surprise in pulling off a great show.

Overheard in the Lobby: Stagewest and Des Moines Metro Opera are collaborating on a pair of productions for World AIDS Day in December. CV

John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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