Rodgers & Hammerstein fanatics may cry sacrilege, but I never quite understood why South Pacific was considered such a classic. Then came the National Tour of the 2009 Tony-winning (Best Revival Of A Musical) Lincoln Center Theatre production, and I became a believer. Not only is South Pacific one of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s finest, it stands as one of the greatest musicals ever to grace a Broadway theater, at least when done right.

Under Bartlett Sher’s truly inspired, Tony-winning direction, this South Pacific does everything right, beginning with its stirring Overture, presented with its original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations and performed by a 26-piece orchestra under the baton of conductor Lawrence Goldberg.

South Pacific dares to open quietly, still almost unheard of at the time of its Broadway premiere. A pair of children living on a small island in the South Pacific early on in World War II sing the charming French language “Dites Moi.” Then comes the kind of extended dialog-and-song sequence that had already become a R&H trademark, with US Navy Ensign Nellie Forbush and expatriate French planter Emile de Becque falling in love over “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Twin Soliloquies,” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” It’s only then, a good twenty minutes into South Pacific, that the show’s male chorus makes its first entrance, a stageful of sailors singing the praises of “Bloody Mary” (and women in general) in “There Is Nothing Like A Dame.” Shortly after, the scene switches to the Island Commander’s Office for one of the play’s central plotlines, the Navy’s request that de Becque help them on a daring secret mission that could easily cost him his life.

Previous productions of South Pacific had seemed disjointed, the transitions between scenes and moods awkward, the show only coming alive sporadically. Blessed with a superb set design by Michael Yeargan, the Lincoln Center revival moves seamlessly from scene to scene, never losing steam, tension building inexorably as Emile first refuses, then agrees to the dangerous mission, an extended second act sequence in the Island Radio Shack as edge-of-your-seat as the finest suspense thriller.

Never have I seen a production of South Pacific (stage or screen) as perfectly cast as this one, and though three major roles have been recast since its May-July engagement at the Ahmanson, all three replacements give such fine performances that no one seeing the tour for the first time at the Orange County Performing Arts Center need feel shortchanged.

Carmen Cusack continues to dazzle as quite possibly the best Nellie ever, singing with one of richest sopranos you’re likely to hear and acting the part with brilliance, subtlety, and charm to spare. Watch Cusack’s reactions during “Some Enchanted Evening,” listen to the way she courageously spits out the word “colored” with the disgust that a 1940s Little Rock native might well have felt, savor her comedic skills as she cavorts in a Thanksgiving Show for the Seabees, and you will see a five star triple-threat.

David Pittsinger has assumed the role of Emile, one he played on Broadway, and if he’s not as drop dead gorgeous as Rod Gilfry was at the Ahmanson, his more weathered look suits Emile to a T, making his despair at Nellie’s rejection all the more heartbreaking, and his acting/singing is as powerful as it gets. When Pittsinger reaches the final bars of “This Nearly Was Mine,” well-earned cheers and bravos greet his tour-de-force rendition of the R&H classic.

Anderson Davis is so darned handsome as Lieutenant Joe Cable that his first-rate acting chops and exquisite tenor might get overlooked, but certainly should not. His scenes opposite the lovely, graceful Sumie Maeda as Liat, are touchingly real, as is his frustration with his own inability to rid himself of the prejudice he sings about so powerfully in “You’ve Got To Be Taught.” (How courageous and ahead of their time Rodgers & Hammerstein were to attack racial bigotry at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in so much of the United States.)

Jodi Kimura is a scene-stealing Bloody Mary and sings “Bali Hai” with the best of them. Timothy Gulan imbues Luther Billis with gusto, warmth and cheek, and has great rapport with Cusack’s Nellie. Gerry Becker is a first-rate authority figure as Captain George Brackett, ably assisted by Peter Rini as Commander William Harbison. Genson Blimine does a nice comic turn as Stewpot, doubling unrecognizably as the Voice Over Loudspeaker, and Rusty Ross makes for an amusingly nerdy Professor. Christina Carrera and CJ Palma are pintsized charmers as Ngana and Jerome.

For once, a South Pacific male ensemble look like they really could be WWII sailors and not lithe chorus boys more likely to be a gal’s gay best friend than to lust after her, thereby making “There Is Nothing Like A Dame” not only a great vocal showcase for their talents but the honest-to-goodness lament of a bunch of horny sailors. Christopher Carl (Richard West), Christian Carter (Henry, James Hayes), Robert Hunt (Morton Wise), Chad Jennings (Radio Officer Bob McCaffrey), Christopher Johnstone (Thomas Hassinger), John Pinto Jr. (Yeoman Herbert Quale), Travis Robertson (Tom O’Brien), Bret Shuford (Lt. Eustis Carmichael, Petty Officer Hamilton Steeves), Gregory Williams (Kenneth Johnson), and Amos Wolff (Johnny Noonan) comprise this stupendously talented bunch. Of particular interest is director Sher’s decision to feature African American sailors as part of the then segregated US Armed Forces and to make sure that they are always seen keeping a certain distance from their white counterparts.

Then there are the WAVES, Nellie’s best girlfriends (and her backup singers)—the terrifically talented Kristie Kerwin (Ensign Sue Yaeger), Cathy Newman (Lieutenant Genevieve Marshall), Julia Osborne (Ensign Dinah Murphy), Diane Phelan (Ensign Cora MacRae, Bloody Mary’s Assistant), and Kristen J. Smith (Ensign Connie Walewska). Completing the company are Jacqueline Colmer (Assistant Dance Captain, Swing), Alexis G.B. Holt (Bloody Mary’s Assistant), Maryann Hu (Bloody Mary’s Assistant), Rashaan James II (Swing), Joe Langworth (Swing), and Matt Stokes (Swing).

Yeargan’s Tony-winning scenic design makes for a production that is gorgeous to look at, bamboo screens rising and falling in various configurations, with a huge map of the South Pacific orienting us smack dab in the middle of the South Pacific and the ocean and Bali Hai always visible in the distance. Catherine Zuber’s superb period costumes won a Tony as well, as did Donald Holder’s subtly dramatic lighting and Scott Lehrer’s sound design, which not only provides a perfect orchestra-voice mix but punctuates the show with dramatic effects like the roar of overhead aircraft. Christopher Gattelli received a deserved Best Choreography Tony nomination, though he is more appropriately credited for the “musical staging” of production numbers like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair.” Ted Sperling deserves kudos as well for his music direction.

Seeing the Lincoln Center Theatre production for the third time (the second having been the recently PBS television broadcast) was every bit as thrilling as my first exposure to it at the Ahmanson. This is one case where the revival may well surpass the original and its successors in all-around brilliance. Trust me. No matter how many times you’ve seen South Pacific, you’ll be seeing it for the very first time.

Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Steven Stanley
October 12, 2010
Photos: Peter Coombs

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