Any time you talk about the “Golden Age” of the Broadway musical, or certainly the Golden Age of Rogers and Hammerstein, dead center will be “South Pacific.” This 1949 adaptation of James A. Michener's “Tales of the South Pacific” was the perfect vehicle for the sweeping romantic music of Richard Rogers and the stage savvy lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein. The book, by Hammerstein with significant contributions by the original director, Joshua Logan, was the perfect combination of romance and comedy in an exotic locale, a kind of idyllic paradise where the imperfect world at war brings its violence and racial intolerance into the romantic lives of American servicemen and women, the local population, and those who traveled there to escape a more familiar civilization.
The original Broadway production ran for more than five years and the show has been in continuous production by professional and amateur companies ever since. This touring production is based on the 2008 Lincoln Center revival directed by Bartlett Sher that won seven Tony Awards, including Best Revival. It is a thing of beauty.
What Sher has accomplished in this production is to minimize the silly comedy of sailors in grass skirts entertaining one another and to emphasize a return to a distant, exotic time and place and the very real emotions of all those who were there. By restoring the often excised themes of racism and misunderstanding between cultures and allowing them to underscore many of the show's central conflicts he gives the story substance and the romantic entanglements real depth. The visually stunning scenic design (Michael Yeargan) gives the islands a reality shaded by otherworldly strangeness, and all of that is subtly nuanced by a brilliant lighting design (Donald Holder).
The excellent 5th Avenue orchestra, under the direction of Lawrence Goldberg, provide strong and elegant support to first-rate voices. Rod Gilfry has a breathtaking voice that gives Emile de Becque's “Some Enchanted Evening” a stature and nobility as sweeping as the melody. The ever so down-to-earth Nelly Forbush was played by Carmen Cusack with a directness and honesty that made her discovery of her own unattractive bigotry seem just the right embarrassment to herself. And also made her ultimate warmth and acceptance of Emile's mixed-race children feel like a deliverance. Ms. Cusack has a beautiful singing voice and plenty of character for her lighter, more purely entertaining songs. I thought Keala Settle brought a bolde crassness to Bloody Mary that made her desperation to do well for her daughter feel urgent and touching. I thought Anderson Davis was quite good as Lt. Cable and his singing of “Younger Than Springtime” was terrific. Matthew Saldivar was fine as the incorrigible Luther Billis, but for me he played the guy a little too ordinary for such a remarkable character. The whole troop of Seabees was really good, each well differentiated and none of them seeming too stagy, just the sort of random collection of guys from all over that you would expect in that place.
This production runs nearly three hours and nothing seems overdrawn or too slow, simply inclusive and complete. What Sher has accomplished is a revival that makes us feel like we're hearing this story for the first time, and from people who were there, whose lives were changed by the things that happened. I don't know if this sort of musical theater will ever come again, if we will ever again trust the simple sentiments of those lyrics and the innocence of those yearning hearts. But maybe this show helps us understand what happens to perfect places when imperfect people try to lead their lives there. I don't know. I do know that this was as good a production of this great musical as I'm likely to see for quite some time.
PICTURED ABOVE: Plantation owner Emile Depecque (Rod Gilfry) and Nurse Nellie Forbush (Carmen Cusack) share an enchanted evening in the national tour of South Pacific playing at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre Jan 29-Feb 21, 2010
PHOTO BY: Peter Coombs