South Pacific – Los Angeles Theater Review
THERE IS NOTHING LIKE SOUTH PACIFIC
by Harvey Perr
published June 18, 2010
now playing in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson
through July 17
Let me start by saying that I am indeed happy that Los Angeles critics and audiences are reacting so warmly to
the national tour of the Lincoln Center Theater production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South
Pacific; it suggests that some of what held me in a state of rapture when I first saw it in New York is coming through and that the
production continues to enchant people on more than a nostalgic level. Then let me continue by saying that this is less a review than a
rumination on the difference between seeing the same production there and here.
I fear that Angelenos will not take kindly to the fact that, in my opinion, despite the buzzing activity in
theaters here, Los Angeles in not a theater town. Of course, when I arrived here in 1965, I would never have imagined that there would
one day be as much theater here as is now available, and, in truth, I can count at least three or four LA productions that I would
include among my all-time most memorable theatrical experiences. I am not talking isolated events here; I am talking general
temperament. On the other hand, New York, like London, is decidedly a theater town. It is steeped in tradition and its audiences are
part of that tradition. And when tourists go to New York or London, going to the theater is part of why they visit those cities. It is
hard to imagine anyone coming to Los Angeles and saying, “Oh, we must go to the theater,” unless, of course, they happen to be visiting
when, say, South Pacific happens to be playing.
So – I’m getting there, I’m getting there, hold your horses – when South Pacific opened at the Lincoln Center, the audience - many of whom had probably seen the
original production in 1949 - were already in their seats, hushed and expectant, when the overture started. And when the “Bali Ha’i”
section of Robert Russell Bennett’s original magnificent arrangement came thunderously through and the stage pulled back and revealed
the orchestra, an audible “ah” could be heard, transforming the audience into an authentic community. One could hear sobbing in that
audience over even the grateful applause when the overture ended. The memory of that moment will stay with me forever.
At the Ahmanson, a large chunk of the audience strolled to their seats, endlessly chattering
amongst themselves, all through the overture. Oh, it’s all right, they seemed to be saying, it’s just the overture, we’ll be seated in
plenty of time, we’ll be in our seats by the time the show starts. In New York, the key word was Commitment. In Los Angeles, it was
Casual. In New York, the theater became a church or, given how many of New York’s theater aficionados are Jewish, a synagogue. One
cannot imagine anyone, under any circumstances, sitting in the Ahmanson Theater and ever thinking of it as a church.
And in New York, when the overture ended and the stage was rolled back, the shimmering beauty of Michael
Yeargen’s recreation of the terrace of Emile de Becque’s plantation filled the space as if
we were in Paradise and Paradise was endless. By the end of the first scene, we had heard “A Cockeyed Optimist” and “Some Enchanted
Evening” and the gorgeous “Twin Soliloquies,” reminders of a score that is second to none in the history of American musical
theater, and watched two people – deBecque and Ensign Nellie Forbush – fall nervously but
thrillingly in love, and the audience was now willing to go anywhere that Bartlett Sher, the brilliant director most gloriously
responsible for this revival, was willing to take us.
It is difficult to think of a stage that would better accommodate the spaciousness of
Yeargan’s design than the Ahmanson, but intimacy gets lost almost entirely, and the proscenium destroys the illusion of openness that
was the artistic intent of the original design. Since no two theaters are ever exactly alike, it is time to realize that when we are
told that we are seeing “the Lincoln Center Theater production,” we are getting, at best, a reasonable facsimile, not the real thing.
When I saw Parade, for example, at the Mark Taper Forum in its “Donmar Warehouse production,”
I knew all the design elements were in place, but I left the theater wishing I had seen it in its original incarnation. There was
brilliance in what I saw, but not enough to assure me that it wasn’t better with a different cast and in a smaller venue.
But, back to South Pacific. Kelli O’Hara was perfection itself, every
bit of Nellie Forbush coming from somewhere deep inside her, and I’m afraid I can’t wash her out of my hair or my mind. But Carmen
Cusack is a good replacement; she is closer in style and temperament to another of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s heroines – the young
Celeste Holm who created Ado Annie in Oklahoma! – and her approach to the part has a
slightly more comic edge and, indeed, her voice sometimes comes miraculously close in timbre and pitch to the great Mary Martin, the
original Nellie. As for Rod Gilfry’s Emile, he has a beautiful voice. And if you take a great voice like his and match it with a great
song like “This Nearly Was Mine,” what you get is great, well-deserved applause. But, if you take that same song, and imbue it with the
memory of loss and with the ache of yearning as Paolo Szot did, you get more than applause; you get the sensation of being under
someone else’s skin. With one, you cheer. With the other, you melt. There is a difference.
There is no need to continue in this vein. South
Pacific still has that extraordinary Richard Rodgers music and those profound and complex lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; the
production still glows with integrity; Bali Ha’i in the distance still remains the embodiment of an audience’s collective dream; Keala
Settle’s Bloody Mary is a unique creation, equal to if not better than her predecessor; until some last-minute shtick, Matthew Saldivar
is a very interesting and very different Luther Billis than expected, maybe even a purposefully gay and more ethnic interpretation than
we usually get; the human drama still has the power to move us; the war, still fresh in one’s memory in 1949, may even seem more real
today, given our distance from it, and the number of wars we’ve been involved in since then. There is only one very serious difference
and it is that Anderson Davis defines the character of Lt. Cable – the tragic figure whose love for Liat, Bloody Mary’s daughter, ends
badly for the same reasons of prejudice that work against the relationship between Nellie and Emile – with a disconcerting macho swagger
that turns what should be a richly human figure into a caricature. But he, too, sings well.
I wish I liked this production here as much as I did in New York. But South Pacific, more than most musicals, deserved a spectacular revival, which it most definitely got,
and which is apparently being received as if the somewhat watered-down national tour version is every inch as perfect as it was when I
saw it. So just call me a nit-picking curmudgeon and see for yourself. It will always have those songs and, this much is true, they are
being as beautifully sung here as there.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com
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