Enchanting Revival of ‘South Pacific’ at Vivien Beaumont Theatre
by Sam Juliano
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is widely considered one of the greatest works of musical theatre ever produced, yet until 2008, a Broadway revival never materialized. When the work finally received its well-deserved encore decades later at the Vivien Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center, it won rapturous praise from critics and audiences alike and captured several Tony Awards including Best Musical Revival. In 1949, the original show with Mary Martin and opera star Ezio Pinza in the leads, won the Best Musical prize and a record-setting number of acting awards that has stood to this day, and ran for nearly 2,000 performances over five years. The show is one of the five R & H masterpieces with Oklahoma!, The King and I, Carousel and The Sound of Music, yet a strong case could be made that it boasts what may well be the most beautiful of all the celebrated duo’s scores, tinged as it is with melancholic romanticism and idyllic bliss, even if its racial underpinnings have dated.
Based on James A. Michener’s series of stories, Tales of the South Pacific, the musical has always been considered well ahead of its time, because of its candid consideration of prejudice. A young American nurse, Nellie Forbush falls for the older French planter Emile De Becque, but must confront her own bias when she learns that he fathered two interracial children, while the Princeton-educated Lt. Joseph Cable likewise is enchanted by Liat, a Tonkinese girl, but knows his own ingrained prejudice will prevent him from marrying her. The new production’s director, the visionary Bartlett Sher, who guided two acclaimed Metropolitan Opera productions of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, has added some interesting context about race that was removed from the original production that sheds further light on Nellie and Cable’s struggles. Sher uses amazing restraint in collaboration with musical staging director Christopher Gattelli in accentuating the naturalism of the song delivery, which flows here fluidly and poetically in a perfect wedding with the show’s non-musical stretches.
The production’s principal setting is an expanse of sand with a single palm tree that suggests a marked melancholic solitude, which of course later undergoes the startling transformation of military occupation, when oil drums, crates, a crane and even part of a plane are rolled in. It’s a majestic panorama of ocean bliss, and later of military occupation, which is still comically tempered by the boisterous presentation of the sex-starved sailors’ “There Is Nothing Like a Dame”. The enticing and insubordinate light and shadows of the islands are gorgeously accented by set designer Michael Yeargan’s emplyment of slatted screens, which illustrate that interior space is always permeated by the tropical beauty of the outside expanse. Lighting Director Donald Holder effects the fine line here with a remarkable adoitness.
As the film’s baritone lead, Brazilian singer Paulo Szot, who recently brought vocal magnificence to the role of Kovalyov, the beleaguered petty bureaucrat who awakens one morning to find his nose missing, in Dimiri Shostakovich’s opera The Nose, recently staged at the Metropolitan Opera, makes for a splendid Emile De Becque, caressing the melodies of standards like Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine with deft lyrical felicity and a spirited robust delivery. As the navy nurse Nellie, Laura Osnes moves out from under the shadows of Mary Martin to provide her own unique spin on the young woman suddenly forced to confront and conquer her prejudice if she ever wants to find true love. She scintillates her way through “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “A Wonderful Guy” and “Honey Bun.” Matthew Morrison possesses the youth and longing in his voice to perfectly navigate “Younger Than Springtime,” and gifted Hawaiian singer Loretta Ables delivers an unforgettable “Bali Ha’i” Broadway character actor Danny Burstein leads a rousing “There is Nothing Like a Dame” with admirable vigour. The 30 piece orchestra, which is among the largest on Broadway, gave exceptional freshness and vitality to this beloved score, musically expressing every ounce of texture from the score’s orchestrations, which lushly transports the listener to the tropical South Pacific, under the expert baton of conductor Ted Sperling.
Sher’s astonishing success with this production goes way further than script additions and the ability to keep the various artistic elements in synch. When Nellie sings “A Wonderful Guy,” the song isn’t just a celebration of her love for de Becque; one actually sees that Nellie is almost unable to believe it herself. In this sense, Sher takes moments that might have seemed silly or outdated for a modern audience and makes them completely believable. But above all, that long venerated Rodgers and Hammerstein score, one of the real treasures of the musical theatre, will have you again singing with this ravishing tunes over and over days and weeks after you leave the theatre. There can be no greater barometer of success.
Note: I attended the Wednesday evening, May 5th performance of ‘South Pacific’ at the Vivien Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln center with Lucille, Broadway Bob, and Bob’s mother Stephania. We stopped at a sandwich shop across Broadway near the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and enjoyed paninis and fruit juices. The show was praised by all.