STAGE Kneehigh Theatre's Noël Cowardinspired cinema-theater hybrid, Brief Encounter, the British import currently up at American Conservatory Theater, is a shrewd melding of winning formulas borrowed from more adventurous recent theatrical works as well as old-time British music hall entertainments. In addition to entr'acte bits, or the visual play on plays and films, actor-singers play their own instruments, à la the recent revival of Sweeney Todd and in the more pretentious sequences, characters undulate à la Twyla Tharp to projected surf or a gust of wind.
But, not unlike Berkeley Rep's American Idiot, Brief Encounter is a bit too clever and too cute for its own good, and not nearly brief enough. Very well executed by a versatile and charming cast, it's a slick crowd-pleaser on its nostalgically cinematic surface, but there's nothing behind the screen. Moreover, despite the originating premise, along with a song or two and a borrowed line here and there, there is an unexpectedly meager dose of Coward-like sensibility in the mix. Indeed, it's a little ironic that the show makes so much of Coward's own admission that he was "no good at love," since the central love affair borrowed from his play and screenplay comes across here as dull, while Coward's rarely were: Cal Shakes recently proved as much with its fine production of Private Lives, very much still alive in the messy and violent tendencies knocking around inside its otherwise trim and tidy formula.
Brief Encounter works better than the snoresome American Idiot. But both flounder around as excuses for arty, music-laden entertainment, while the ol' 1949 Rogers and Hammerstein musical juggernaut, South Pacific (freshly laundered in the traveling version of director Bartlett Sher's 2008 Tony-winning production), comes in like a tsunami and washes them clean away (or right out of our hair, to borrow a line from somewhere). As everything you want from a musical, South Pacific, now at the Golden Gate Theater courtesy of SHN's Best of Broadway series, is nothing short of awesome.
As a rule, musicals are spectacles for entertainment first, any intended social import usually going only so far. But while the two cents of social commentary being offered up by both South Pacific and American Idiot don't amount to a Threepenny Opera, only South Pacific really delivers here too. Backed by an excellent cast, first-rate choreography and staging, and enthralling musical direction, South Pacific feels remarkably fresh in general, as if still at the peak of its powers, and its tackling of American racial prejudice in the intertwined stories of Lt. Joe Cable (a dashing Anderson Davis), smitten with a young Polynesian (a sweetly innocent Sumie Maeda), and the equally rocky affair between Ensign Nellie Forbush (a wonderful Carmen Cusack) and French exile Emile de Becque (formidable baritone and charmer Rod Gilfry) still comes across with a blunt force, albeit one circumscribed by the imperatives of happy endings.
Through Oct. 11, check Web site for showtimes, $14$82
American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary, SF
(415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org
Through Oct. 25, check Web site for showtimes, $30$99
Golden Gate Theatre, One Taylor, SF
(415) 512-7770, http://shnsf.com