South Pacific

Bartlett Sher’s close-to-perfect revival of the 1949 musical theater classic is a must-see event.

Full disclosure: South Pacific was the first show I ever saw on Broadway. Its beauty, humor, and power are in no small way responsible for why I write about theater today. So it’s not in the cards that I’m going to say a discouraging word about this musical theater classic, which remains every beat and measure as magnificent as it was on its original opening night, April 7, 1949. While Bartlett Sher’s current revival of South Pacific, now at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, is not a perfect realization of the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein-Joshua Logan musical; it’s near enough that anyone caviling about its drawbacks for more than 10 seconds is just a spoil-sport.

With the triumph and despair of World War II still in everyone’s recent memory, the veteran craftsmen made unforgettable the story of Little Rock’s innocent nurse Nellie Forbush (Kelli O’Hara), who falls for older plantation owner Emile de Becque (Brazilian opera star Paulo Szot) before realizing he has two children (Laurissa Romain, Luka Kain) by a deceased Polynesian woman. The startled Nellie finds it difficult to reconcile the situation with her insular Arkansas upbringing and abandons her plans to marry Emile.

The troubled Nellie-Emile romance overlaps with that of Philadelphia’s Princeton-educated Lieutenant Joseph Cable (Matthew Morrison), who falls for Bali Ha’i island girl Liat (Li Jun Li) but despairs of introducing her to life back home. The four conflicted lovers play out their drama while Liat’s money-hungry mother Bloody Mary (Loretta Ables Sayre) and enlisted man Luther Billis (Danny Burstein) try to grease various wheels and while the war in the Pacific intensifies, eventually involving de Becque and Cable in a dangerous mission as the women wait.

To underline the rainbow emotions, Rodgers and Hammerstein supplied songs of innocence (“A Cock-Eyed Optimist”), joy (“Some Enchanted Evening”), hope (“Twin Soliloquies”), anger (“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”), frivolity (“Honey Bun”), loss (“This Nearly Was Mine”), giddy defiance (“I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”) and the manifestations of sexual repression (“Bloody Mary,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame”). These charmed items shot up the record chart 60 years ago, and they sound just as freshly-minted and emotionally true when sung here by O’Hara, Szot, and the rest of the exuberant cast.

For the high quality of the treatment accorded the songs and Robert Russell Bennett’s thrilling original orchestrations, kudos belong to conductor/musical director Ted Sperling and vocal coach Deborah Hecht, as well as choreographer Christopher Gattelli, who comes through like aces when dances are called for — or lively movement, as in the hilariously stirring “Nothing Like a Dame.” For the high quality of the show’s look, credit set designer Michael Yeargan who has equal success shuttling on shower towers for Nellie and bringing Bali Ha’i into gorgeous view. In the Thanksgiving show-within-the-show backdrop, he’s even included a likeness of Forbush originator, Mary Martin.

For the high quality of the production’s many noteworthy facets, Sher can take a bow — starting with the overture when, at a point where the music crescendos, the thrust stage retracts, revealing the 30-strong orchestra beatifically at work. It’s also Sher who must shoulder responsibility for what many will consider a misconstrued interpretation of Nellie, who’s far more restrained in O’Hara’s performance than someone vociferously declaring herself “a cockeyed optimist” would likely be. Sher also might have helped Szot seem less awkward during the book scenes than he does; however, he spectacularly sings “This Nearly Was Mine” and “Some Enchanted Evening.”

If it’s taken almost 60 years for this first-ever Broadway revival, some show-biz wags have blamed the delay on how dated South Pacific supposedly was –and the off-kilter notion that Nellie Forbush’s prejudices were a thing of the past. Not so. The musical — coming during a presidential campaign where race is a heated issue — now registers as indisputably relevant to the headlines. Listening to “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” this month is like tuning in to a summary of Barack Obama’s speech on how intolerance corrupts decent thought. The immediacy of the message is only one of a million reasons why the new South Pacific is a must-see-this-very-minute affair.

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South Pacific

Closed: August 22, 2010