Based on James A. Michener's series of stories, the musical is often considered ahead of its time because of its candid discussion of racial prejudice: Young American nurse Nellie Forbush (Carmen Cusack) falls for the older French planter Emile De Becque (Rod Gilfry), but must confront her own prejudice when she finds out that he fathered two interracial children, while the Princeton-educated Lt. Joseph Cable (Anderson Davis) likewise is enchanted by Liat (Sumie Maeda), a Tonkinese girl, but knows his ingrained prejudice will prevent him from marrying her. Wisely, Sher has restored additional text about race that had been cut from the original production, which gives more context to Nellie and Cable's struggles.
Sher's success with this production goes beyond script additions. Under his direction, we see the motivations, doubts, and changes that occur for every character. When Nellie sings "A Wonderful Guy," the song isn't just a celebration of her love for de Becque; one sees that Nellie is almost unable to believe it herself. In this way, Sher takes moments that might have seemed silly or outdated for a modern audience and makes them fully relatable. In addition, Christopher Gattelli provides smart musical staging that flows with the rest of the production.
The show's romantic leads each leave a little something to be desired. Gilfry's commanding and melodious voice impresses, but he is occasionally overzealous when delivering lines. Cusack is technically perfect in her role -- she sings beautifully and nails both the character's comedy and naivete -- but lacks a certain warmth needed to fully draw audiences to Nellie. As Cable, Davis comes across as too green for the role, but his earnestness suits the young character.
Meanwhile, Keala Settle is both funny and devastating as Bloody Mary, the islander making her fortune by selling grass skirts and other goods to the stationed Americans. Bloody Mary is also the mother of Liat, and she's just as scrupulous in her efforts to win Cable for her daughter as she is in her merchandise sales. Matthew Saldivar creates a memorable Luther Billis, the comical sailor with a soft spot for Nellie. The show's ensemble is flawless, abounding with energy in each of their musical numbers.
Michael Yeargan's set evokes the vastness of the world around the island; Donald Holder's lighting compliments the mood and setting of each scene; and Catherine Zuber's costumes range from Navy uniforms to swimsuits to evening wear to native dress, all of which help to set the time period and give identity to the characters -- one more way this incredibly vibrant production manages to be truthful and relevant.