LOS ANGELES — Reba McEntire’s established her own place in country music with a grab bag of unique vocal embellishments that identify her immediately. She routinely grafts her performances with tight trills, dramatic flourishes in volume, effective slides and the occasional squeak.
It’s impressive that some three decades into her career, she continues to find new means of vocal expression, as she did Friday (Aug. 4) at Los Angeles’ prestigious Hollywood Bowl during the first show in a three-night run of the Broadway classic South Pacific. She growled like a man during “Honey Bun” — appropriate since the song finds her character, Nellie Forbush, playing a gender-reversing stage role on the musical’s Thanksgiving Follies set. And she choked off words and slipped off pitch during a rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening” — appropriate once again since she was mirroring the tearful status of Forbush at that particular juncture.
Finding new modes for her creativity is something McEntire’s done about as well as anyone in country music. Building on her original place as a Patsy Cline-ish performer, she’s expanded her musical vocabulary, appropriated pop-based concert productions, tackled the movies, designed her own clothing line, starred in her own TV sitcom and taken a role on Broadway.
She gave a reading of South Pacific at Carnegie Hall two years ago, though this past weekend’s trio of performances was a tad more extensive. McEntire proved an appropriate choice for the role of Forbush, a Navy nurse stationed on an island in the midst of America’s battle with the Japanese in World War II. Forbush is a “hick from the sticks,” raised in Little Rock (which deserves a wink, since the city’s name was also the title of one McEntire’s No. 1 singles) with a mix of naiveté and common sense. The simplistic Forbush falls for a suave Frenchman, portrayed by classically trained tenor Brian Stokes Mitchell, much as the Oklahoma-bred McEntire has balanced her own ranch and rodeo upbringing with a current home in Beverly Hills.
While McEntire came to prominence as a singer, she’s developed nicely as an actress. In her former sitcom, Reba, she earned comparisons to Lucille Ball for her ability to use facial expressions and physical humor to coax a laugh. During South Pacific, she showed a similar knack by using physical distance to accentuate Forbush’s uncertainties about her feelings for Mitchell’s Emile de Becque, moving in close, then pulling away as she agonized over the attraction. And like a good comedian — or a good actress — she timed her lines well, notably yielding chuckles when she hesitated in a plot twist: “I always find it interesting why a man … kills another person.”
Performed in the open-air Bowl amphitheater, South Pacific’s cast included Spinal Tap member Michael McKean and Armelia McQueen, the latter reprising the role of Bloody Mary she previously handled alongside Robert Goulet on Broadway. The Bowl’s set mixed tropical palm trees and loading-dock crates, while Paul Gemignani wore a Hawaiian shirt to conduct the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, dressed in casual short sleeves.
McEntire’s interest in theater may seem a bit unusual in country circles, though it’s hardly without precedent. Gary Morris appeared on Broadway in La Boheme during the 1980s, Pam Tillis had a three-week run in the cast of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Roger Miller won a Tony award for the music of Big River, and Dottie West once hit the road in a touring production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
The Broadway-Music Row connection has gone the other way, as well. Oscar Hammerstein, who co-wrote the songs to South Pacific with longtime collaborator Richard Rodgers, also co-wrote the title song for a 1920s musical, Rose-Marie, that became a country hit for Slim Whitman. Other theatrical writers who found their way to the country charts have included Irving Berlin (who wrote Willie Nelson’s “Blue Skies”), Cole Porter (composer of Gene Autry’s “Don’t Fence Me In”) and Irving Mills (who authored Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues”).
So for a woman such as McEntire, who began with a traditional country base, it’s appropriate that even as she’s expanded her reach, she’s done so in a way that builds on another country tradition.
Ultimately, South Pacific required McEntire to employ a multitude of skills — as a singer, an actor, a comedienne and a dancer. Given the inspiration she’s received from multi-talented performers Barbara Mandrell and Dolly Parton (currently working on her own Broadway production of 9 to 5), none of McEntire’s career expansion should come as a surprise. Nor should it come as a surprise that even as she tackles more sophisticated fare, she’s been able to hold on to the ranch-reared core of her being.