Tuesday, February 8, 2011

South Pacific National Tour at the Kennedy Center

The following theatrical review is for an event which occurred in December 2010.    The Thespian apologizes for the delay.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pulitzer Prize winning musical, South Pacific, returned to Broadway in its first official revival in 2008, winning 7 Tony awards including Best Musical Revival, Musical Director and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Paolo Szot as Emile de Becque.    It is wonderful that the Lincoln Center staging was preserved on film for the Great Performances series on PBS and was broadcast live just prior to the closing of the show and that most of the original cast was able to have their performances recorded for posterity  (Glee's Matthew Morrison, who originated Lt. Cable was unable to return).  

The wonderfully staged production by director Bartlett Sher is now on tour.   If South Pacific comes near you, please go see it.    As one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's best works this production has relevance in the 21st century for its frank discussion of prejudice and the reality of the necessary hastiness of wartime romance.    Who would have thought that in 1949 a musical would dare to risk making the heroine unlikeable in her rejection of the man she loves because of his interracial relationship?  And, that the leading man, a French refugee with a shady past, would be unrepentant of that relationship and his mixed race children?  Or that it would so openly depict the not so pleasant reality of an island woman who while appearing to be the caricature comic relief is actually a single mother willing to essentially prostitute her teenage daughter in the hopes that said daughter can gain an American husband and thus a better life.     The Thespian just described the essence of the relationships of the two romantic couples in South Pacific.    It is the deep themes in the wartime islands on the edge of combat in World War II that make South Pacific such a compelling evening of theatre.

Mr. Sher stages South Pacific in ways that show what wartime life is like for the nurses, seabees, planters and natives on this small island.   The seabees are both white and black, but in their production numbers the colors do not "mix" reflecting the fact that the armed forces were segregated.   Segregation also exists between the nurses, who are officers, and the enlisted seabees, leading to the poignancy of the entrepreneurial Luther Billis and his unrequited crush on our heroine, Nellie Forbush.    Then there is the hidden temptations of the island natives.   Whilst the Navy personnel have encounters with the course Bloody Mary, who sells souvenir grass skirts and shrunken heads to make ends meet, the nearby island of Bali Hai is off limits to all, but officers on leave.   Bali Hai, a metaphor for dreams and desire, is also the refuge for the planters wives and daughters and the younger native women, such as Bloody Mary's daughter, Liat, protecting them from undesirable encounters with the less lucrative enlisted men.

There is also a delight in recognizing that when the nurses and sailors perform it should be an unpolished amateur night with a lot of heart.    The Thanksgiving Follies are not the Rockettes and they do not dance as if it is a professionally choreographed production, but rather like nurses and sailors who only rehearse in the fleeting moments between work shifts.

Enough metaphors, what's the actual production like?   In a word, outstanding.    South Pacific began the recent welcome trend of using the original orchestrations in revivals.   On Broadway it was a 30 piece orchestra, on tour at the Kennedy Center it was 26.    To begin with, simply close your eyes and absorb the wonderful, lush sounds of every instrument from violin to trombone to harp.    And then prepare to have the actors match those sounds vocally.   David Pittsinger, who appeared in the Lincoln Center production, is a marvelous opera singer who enchants the audience as much as he does Nellie Forbush.   And his unrepentant embrace of Emile de Becque's colorful life and past makes for a compelling character.    Carmen Cusack matches him vocally, although the evening The Thespian was in attendance it took her a song or two to warm up her voice.    Ms. Cusack captures her enthusiasm, naivety, and impulsiveness.    Nellie is a woman who agrees to marry a man after only dating him for two weeks and then is shocked when she realizes that in being so impulsive she really doesn't know the man she wants to marry.    Ms Cusack also carries off the horror that Nellie feels when she meets Emile's children and can't get past the fact that their mother was "colored."   Yet it is to the credit of the writers' and Ms. Cusack's performance her transformation to acceptance while facing the loss of Emile and seeing the loss of Lt. Cable and it's impact on the girl he loves that leads to an emotional happy ending for Nellie and Emile.

Anderson Davis plays Lt. Joe Cable with the cockiness of the Marine flyboy.   Yet, he is just a vulnerable young man who desperately needs the comfort and love of the island girl, Liat.   Seeing him breakdown when he admits how much he needs respite from the war is heartbreaking.   His rendition of the love song "Younger Than Springtime" is gorgeous, but it is the biting racial anthem, "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught"that fleshes the performance into to more than doomed second leading man.

Sumie Maeda is beautiful as Liat and will break your heart as hers is repeated broken during the story.  Jodi Kimura as Bloody Mary navigates the contradictions of her character.    She is at once, the comic relief for the seabees, playing the role of naive, brash saleswoman out for a quick buck.   But at her heart she is a desperate mother wanting to better the life of her daughter.    The decision to stage the controversial song,  "Happy Talk", backstage at The Thanksgiving Follies is brilliant.   It is a seduction to the malaria-stricken Lt. Cable, to get him to agree to marry Liat.    Some recent productions have cut "Happy Talk", believing it to be a simplistic song demeaning to the island natives in its choppy English.    But, here it works as a catalyst between the dream of living simply on Bali Hai and the cold reality that Lt. Cable is about to embark on a very dangerous mission, one that may end not only his dreams with Liat, but his own life.

TImothy Gulan is terrific as the always looking for an opportunity Luther Billis.   John Bolger is commanding yet sympathetic as Capt. Brackett.    The rest of the ensemble from child to adult is top notch.    The set design by Michael Yeargan uses a raked stage to great effect.   The beach scenes showing an actual plane and a crane for unloading from ships really shows what the circumstances for the Navy personnel must have been like.   Lattice work helps create the hillside estate of Emile and the hidden treasures of Bali Hai.   And a very helpful full scale map of the South Pacific islands for the intelligence scenes provides an visual insight into just what the U.S. Navy was facing in tracking the Japanese fleet in the decades before satellite technology.

South Pacific was performed at The Kennedy Center's Opera House from December 14, 2010 - January 16, 2011.   It is currently on tour.    For dates, performance venues and ticket information please visit www.southpacificontour.com.

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