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Old music hampers new 'South Pacific'

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 25, 2001


At first, Harry Connick Jr. couldn't quite believe what he was hearing.

Playing Marine Lt. Joseph Cable in ABC's three-hour telecast of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, at 8 p.m. Monday on WFTS-Ch. 28, Connick was sliding into a World War II-era musical tailor-made for his early image as a young Frank Sinatra.

But representatives for Rodgers and Hammerstein had a rude awakening for the singer/actor after hearing his recorded vocal of the classic anti-racism song, You've Got to Be Carefully Taught.

It wasn't good enough.

"They said I wasn't angry enough," says Connick, a Grammy Award-winning artist who has been playing piano and singing with bands since age 10. "(But) you can't tell them what you're going to be doing with your face or how your body is going to be moving. So I said I'd rerecord it, if they'd let me do it live."

Perhaps it's a coincidence, but Connick's rendition of Taught is one of the few musical numbers from ABC's South Pacific update that stands up on modern-day television -- a brief, bitter tune that perfectly summarizes the anger of a man who fears he can't marry his Asian girlfriend because of 1940s-era prejudice.

It's a shame, because there's so much that's right about the new South Pacific. Featuring Tony winner Glenn Close as Navy nurse Nellie Forbush and ex-Murphy Brown star Robert Pastorelli as wily Seabee con man Luther Billis, the updated musical does a wonderful job of showcasing the core story of American military personnel who find love across race and culture lines.

Filmed in Tahiti and Australia, the $15-million production is lavish and expertly done, re-creating the remote Pacific island where Forbush falls for a French plantation owner with biracial children and Cable is smitten by a young Tonkinese woman.

But, even though South Pacific's message of cultural tolerance and anti-racism fits modern-day mores, many lyrics don't. Tunes such as I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair and Bali Ha'i don't get better with time.

When Close's Forbush sings that she's "corny as Kansas in August" (during I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy), you believe her.

Speaking of Close, it's tough to buy a 54-year-old woman as Forbush, who constantly questions whether she can love a man from such a different cultural background (she's from Little Rock) and even asks Cable (at least 15 years her junior) for advice.

Bloody Mary, a shrewd Tonkinese trader who talks in pidgin English and happens to be mother to Cable's girlfriend, is an anachronism that's tough to watch. At least producers stuck a shot of an all-black Navy crew in the elaborate opening number, There Is Nothin' Like a Dame.

Still, you can't leave ABC's South Pacific without feeling that the show might have been better had producers cut all but a few musical numbers, excepting the classic ballad Some Enchanted Evening.

"If you take away the music, what's happening to these people is very current," says Connick, who admits he doesn't much like the 1958 film that starred Mitzi Gaynor and Ray Walston. "To me, (ABC's version) actually feels like a story. And -- though I'd like to take myself out of the equation for a minute -- it's incredibly well-acted."

* * *

I know I've already reviewed ABC's two new sitcoms premiering this week, What About Joan, debuting at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, and My Wife and Kids, starting at 8 p.m. Wednesday, both on WFTS-Ch. 28. But the network sent extra episodes of each show after my initial story ran, so I decided to give them another chance.

Turns out, first impressions truly are the most accurate. Joan Cusack is a rubber-faced comedy goddess in movies such as High Fidelity and In & Out. But in What About Joan, the geeky outrageousness that makes her a priceless character actor overpowers her small-screen turn as an overwhelmed high school counselor.

Ex-Early Edition star Kyle Chandler plays a banker boyfriend who is way too good-looking for her, and Veronica's Closet's Wallace Langham is a self-centered teacher who refuses to let his romance with a fellow teacher become public.

By the time you see Joan dishing on the sexual prowess of her boyfriend with three female friends in the second episode (shades of Sex and the City?), the circle of overacted, derivative humor is complete.

The problem with Damon Wayans' new sitcom, My Wife and Kids, is less complex: It's not that funny.

But the actors themselves are, particularly Wayans, whose offhand performance as a hip father of three comes off as genuine, if low-key. (This father of three particularly vibed with the scene where he threatens to throw down with a disrespectful teenage son.)

Still, Wayans at times seems so laid-back that he's sleepwalking through cobbled-together riffs on marriage, family and why NBA star Allen Iverson will never be on a Wheaties box (you don't want "corn rows on your corn flakes," he says). Better writers can still save this show (which also underuses former Martin star Tisha Campbell-Martin); pushed back to Wednesday from a scheduled March 14 debut -- never a good sign.

* * *

Quick take: They didn't send a review tape, but the producers of Fox's new show Boot Camp, debuting at 9 p.m. Wednesday on WTVT-Ch. 13, did provide a fake survival guide/press kit describing the network's latest stab at reality TV. In this one, 16 people go through eight weeks of grueling military training and seven arduous "missions," tested by four hard-core Marine drill instructors.

Of course, one person is voted out each week and gets to take another person along (think Survivor meets An Officer and a Gentleman). The final winner gets $500,000. There even are Florida ties: One participant is from Tallahassee, one is a Miami native, and the whole mess was filmed at Camp Blanding, near Jacksonville.

Despite the popularity of reality TV, I can't help thinking this is an odd follow-up to Temptation Island's sex-drenched success. Who knows, maybe America has a secret jones for push-ups and obstacle courses.

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