What made “South Pacific” so wonderful and startling when it opened on Broadway in 1949 (and went on to run for five years) was that it not only resonated with the reality of America at war but also mirrored an aspect of our social mores (with the notable exception of “Show Boat” in 1927) that was foreign to the American Musical Theater. For some inexplicable reason, it was deemed too risky and dated (?) for a major revival on Broadway until now. As adapted by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan from novelist James A. Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” “South Pacific” was a brave undertaking at the time. Now it seems not only topical but timely as ever in the stunning new Lincoln Center Theater production. After 59 years, it remains an adult musical with an adult theme.
And after all these years, we are getting a production so extraordinary in its artistry and execution that we can say the wait was well worth it. Nellie, a young navy nurse, meets and falls in love with a French plantation owner, Emile de Becque, who we discover is both a murderer and a widower with Tonkinese children. Racial bigotry is introduced into the principal romance, and then heightened further by a secondary love affair between a Marine lieutenant and a Tonkinese girl. Tears flow easily as the tender and ill-fated love between Lt. Joseph Cable and Liat comes to its tragic end. The resolution for Nellie and Emile is happier, but they are richer for the test their love has experienced.
Whether capturing the musical’s bent for unabashed exoticism or presiding over the perfectly integrated comic relief of gregarious sailor Luther Billis (as hilariously portrayed by Danny Burstein), director Bartlett Sher has found the emotional center of this bittersweet fable.
In the role of the “Cockeyed Optimist” Ensign Nellie Forbush, Kelli O’Hara invests the role of the conflicted Nellie with a buoyant vibrancy that also may be said to define the entire company. She may try to “Wash That Man Right Out of Her Hair” but she won’t soon erase our memory of her fine performance and the sound of her lovely soprano voice. Ultimately it is the truthful textures of O’Hara’s portrayal that makes the conscience-struggling provincial from Little Rock so empathetic. O’Hara, who beguiled Broadway audiences in “The Light in the Piazza” and “The Pajama Game,” makes you feel her confusion and heartbreak as she questions whether she should or shouldn’t marry a Frenchman with “colored” children.
Brazilian native Paulo Szot (pronounced Shot) is tall, virile, and handsome as the plantation owner de Becque. He has a rich and splendidly resonant baritone voice that infuses “Some Enchanted Evening,” and “This Nearly Was Mine” with all the impassioned feelings those lyrical songs demand. No stolid presence in this his Lincoln Center Theater debut, Szot has also graced the stages of the New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera across the plaza. It may be too much to hope that he remains a South Pacific resident for the five years or more that this production is sure to run.
The all-consuming love that develops during the one night encounter between Lt. Joseph Cable (Mathew Morrison) and Bloody Mary’s Tonkinese teen daughter, Liat (Li Jun Li) is handled with dreamy eroticism. Loretta Ables Sayre is bloody terrific as the entrepreneurial peddler Bloody Mary and has what it takes to steal as many scenes as she can from a stage-full of energized enlisted men and spiffy-looking navy nurses. The show-within-the-show “Thanksgiving Follies,” as joyously performed by the men and the nurses, also allows the versatile and talented Burstein to jiggle his tattooed belly with aplomb. Notwithstanding the images we have of the show’s original stars, Mary Martin (in the ill-fitting sailor uniform) and Ezio Pinza, O’Hara and Szot are providing a new generation with a Nellie Forbush and an Emile de Becque to cherish.
Michael Yeargan’s glorious setting is highlighted by a luminous backdrop of sky and the beachhead, a large sandy dune, and a single palm tree. The faint image of Bali Hai looms across the sea. And what about that imposing prop fighter-plane sitting on the beach? Wow! Donald Holder’s breathtaking lighting allows for Bali Hai to be seen and then fade into the mist to wondrous effect. One spectacular element during the overture and the entr’acte is the use of a retractable motorized stage that shows off the orchestra with its 30-plus musicians, under the direction of Ted Sperling. The stage gracefully glides over the orchestra pit once the action begins.
The flawless direction of Sher (“The Light in the Piazza,” also for Lincoln Center Theater) beautifully serves the obligatory sentiments inherent in this musical as well as keeping an uncompromising focus on the continuing relevancy of racial intolerance. And what a wonderful treat it is to hear, as sung by Cable to Nellie, “My Girl Back Home,” a charming melodic ballad that was not in the original production, but written for the film version. For sure, this is the best of all enchanted evenings Broadway is going to get this season. HHHH