Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Based on the recent award-winning and critically acclaimed revival staged on Broadway by Lincoln Center, the national tour of South Pacific playing currently in Cincinnati boasts a strong cast along with excellent direction and design in conjunction with Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic score.
South Pacific is a love story set against the backdrop of World War II. Stationed on an island not far from where Japanese fighters are located, Ensign nurse Nellie Forbush meets French plantation owner Emile de Becque and a romance is kindled. In addition, Lt. Joe Cable has recently arrived to initiate a plan to monitor the activities of the Japanese on a nearby island. Cable is soon torn between his duty and his feelings for a young native girl he meets. Meanwhile, Nellie ponders a marriage proposal from the Frenchman, but soon must address her prejudices when she learns that Emile has two young Polynesian children. Due to his knowledge of the islands, Emile is recruited to help Cable with the reconnaissance mission, and the unknown fate of the two men brings everyone, especially Nellie, significant worry and anxiety.
The score for South Pacific is by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, whose musicals have impacted the world like those of no other writers. Classic songs such as "Some Enchanted Evening," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair," "This Nearly Was Mine" and "Younger Than Springtime" make this score one of the period's finest. Rodgers' lush melodies and Hammerstein's efficient and descriptive lyrics are supported by the original sweeping orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett.
Credited to Hammerstein and original director Joshua Logan, the book (written in 1949) succeeds in creating an emotionally engaging story, and took a stand against prejudice well before it was "cool" to do so. There is apt dramatic tension, romance, historical significance, and humor. However, there are glaring weaknesses as well. The opening scenes between Emile and Nellie lack a stronger impact due to insufficient back story. When Emile states that a woman he hardly knows is the most important thing in his life, even more than his children, it seems in great contrast to his otherwise sympathetic character. In addition, there is little motivation to support the speed to which Lt. Cable establishes his relationship with Liat.
As Nellie, Carmen Cusack provides an endearing performance, and brings out the character's insecurity, spunk, and homespun qualities. She also sings confidently and with a very natural and pleasant tone, and maintains the character's Southern drawl throughout in both her speech and singing. Jason Howard puts his strong, operatic baritone voice to good use as Emile, making "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine" memorable musical moments. Though he's a bit stiff in the acting department, he's suitable at a minimum.
Jodi Kimura is vocally impressive and quite humorous as Bloody Mary. Anderson Davis shows off an attractive singing voice as Lt. Cable, and understudy Tim Gulan (Luther Billis) provides additional comic relief.
Bartlett Sher won a Tony Award for his direction of this revival, and he takes great care to create an authentic atmosphere for the show. His delicate staging, fluid transitions, and deliberate pace bring out the humanity of the piece quite successfully. The organic dances and musical staging by Christopher Gattelli are effective. The wonderful 25-piece orchestra is capably led by Lawrence Goldberg.
The beautifully designed and carefully detailed set by Michael Yeargan evokes the various island locales, and the use of numerous panels of wooden slotted blinds is ingenious and attractive. The exquisite lighting for the show by Donald Holder is aesthetically stunning and successfully communicates both mood and the passage of time. Costumes by Catherine Zuber are period appropriate, visually appealing, and meticulously crafted. The clear-as-a-bell sound is by Scott Lehrer. All four of these designers won Tony Awards for their work on the show.
South Pacific is a classic musical with a truly wonderful score, and the current national tour is brilliantly staged and solidly performed. South Pacific continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through October 3, 2010.-- Scott Cain