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picture - South PacificTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published April 4, 2008


South Pacific

now playing on Broadway at the Vivian Beaumont Theater


It starts with the overture. You hear a strain of “Bali H’ai” and, as the melody begins to gather force, the thrust stage of the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont begins to retract until, finally, at the same moment, “Bali H’ai” reaches its crescendo, and a full orchestra in the pit is revealed to the audience, which, collectively, swoons its first full swoon of the evening. We are in the theater again. The sight of the orchestra brings tears to the eyes. The sound of that overture reminds us of the incomparable score Richard Rodgers wrote and, at the same time, of a period when we were in thrall to Rodgers and his partner, the great lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, when the musical comedy, the great invention of the American theater, had reached its apex. And the swoon does not die down until the last note of the overture is heard. Perhaps the chief component of that swoon is profound nostalgia, nostalgia for the memory of something that entered our consciousness without really taking root, the memory of a phenomenon called South Pacific. Perhaps, one fears, the experience will not take us any further than that: a longing for a part of the past, fulfilled by an overture.


But, the overture ended, the thrust stage back in place, the lights come up on the simple and simply beautiful set that Michael Yeargan has designed, and that Donald Holder has lit with elegance and discretion, and we are inside the plantation where Emile de Becque lives his lush but lonely life, and within minutes, we meet Emile and his date, Ensign Nellie Forbush, perhaps the most famous nurse in World War II literature, who are clearly smitten with each other but still nervously playing around with the idea of discovering each other. By the end of the scene, they are in love, and we have heard “Dites- Moi” (“Dites-moi pourquoi la vie est belle”), “A Cockeyed Optimist” (“I’m stuck like a dope / With a thing called hope / And I can’t get it out of my heart”), “Twin Soliloquies” (“This is what I need / This is what I long for”), and “Some Enchanted Evening” (“And night after night / As strange as it seems / The sound of her laughter will sing in your dreams”), and we are more than a little bit in love, too.


And it has nothing to do with nostalgia. When you hear people talk about this revival of South Pacific, you will hear the word “rapturous” (except from those cynics who will always resist the possibility of perfection, which this production aims for and achieves) and nothing describes better what you will feel almost continuously for three hours: sheer rapture. I still find myself somewhat incoherent trying to describe just exactly what it is that has taken my breath away, that has put me under its spell.


picture - South PacificThere is no denying the impact of the Rodgers score, one gorgeous melody following another. Within minutes of each other, we go from “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” to “A Wonderful Guy.” And, after all the revivals of Stephen Sondheim musicals in recent years, it is exciting, once again, having the ripe work of his mentor, Hammerstein, at his most astringent and most romantic, in our midst. There is bound to be a lot of talk about how we’ve finally caught up with the harsh lessons of “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” now that it serves as a counterpoint to Barack Obama’s recent speech on racism. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan doesn’t seem, as many of us feared it might, dated in the least; intelligence and compassion and rich human characterization do not go out of style. The mix of story-book romance and harsh reality remains uncommonly well balanced. Any book that suggests that its heroine, from a sheltered existence in Little Rock, can forgive her lover for having killed a man but can’t face the fact that he has had two children with a Polynesian wife, can’t be accused of choosing romanticism over truth. And, though we cannot duplicate the collective feeling that an audience must have had in 1949, when we were newly getting over the war in the South Pacific, the war in Iraq makes it impossible for us to keep any real distance from the material.


And yet the beauty of this revival is that its brilliant director, Bartlett Sher, who has already demonstrated a vast talent for sweeping lyricism (The Light in the Piazza) and an ear for the common poetry of our past (Awake and Sing), has chosen to play the material, down to Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations, as if it were 1949 and South Pacific was a new and fresh show that just happened to come his way. So it seems newly minted not because it has been updated but because it trusts the source material. And with the aid of the aforementioned Messers Yeargan and Holder and his excellent costume designer, Catherine Zuber, he has merely mined a field already resplendent with riches.


And it would be difficult to imagine coming up with a better cast than the one that Sher has assembled. Kelli O’Hara just walks onstage and, immediately, she is Nellie Forbush, so complete is her ability to dig deeply into her character. Here is a Nellie so decent, so full of longing, so crisply efficient, that there is not an aspect of her we don’t fully believe in, and, even when we are confronted with her ugliest prejudices, we watch the battle she wages within herself with loving interest. And it would be easy enough to dismiss the depth of her performance and just take pleasure in her singing, which is creamy and effortless. Ms. O’Hara is delivering on all counts and it’s fairly safe to say that her work is one of the major achievements in the history of our musical theater. Anything she does in the future will be eagerly anticipated but, for the moment, Kelli O’Hara has ceased being Kelli O’Hara; she is Nellie Forbush.


picture - South PacificBut, then again, there’s Paulo Szot, as Emile de Becque, whose versions of “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” fill the theater with beautiful musicality and luxurious emotion. And Loretta Ables Sayre, making a memorable New York debut, as Bloody Mary, a woman who is willing to sell her daughter as easily as she sells shrunken heads and grass skirts and still evoke our sympathy and understanding, sails through “Bali H’ai” and “Happy Talk” as if they were written expressly for her. Matthew Morrison’s Lt. Cable, sent on a dangerous mission from which he may not return, fresh out of Princeton, feverishly finding himself in love with Bloody Mary’s exquisite daughter, Liat, is a mass of youthful contradictions, all of which he projects with utter simplicity and, as if that weren’t enough, he gets to sing one of the show’s most ‘rapturous’ songs, “Younger than Springtime,” and sing it with both delicacy and intensity, and yet it is his meltingly wistful take on the lesser-known “My Girl Back Home” that resonates with tenderness and youthful passion. And Danny Burstein’s Luther Billis, with amiable support from Victor Hanks and Noah Weisberg, supplies not just delightful comic relief but unassuming humanity. And he takes masterful charge of the rousing, if politically incorrect, “There is Nothin’ Like A Dame.” And who would have thought that, in a score so magnificent, one would leave the theater humming “Honeybun,” which Burstein and O’Hara perform with such liberating good humor?


You may have guessed by now that I am bursting with enthusiasm. I stand accused. But I wish to convey that I left the theater feeling that it was a shared experience, that I was in harmony with the rest of the audience. This “South Pacific” is one for the ages.


harveyperr @


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