The production of South Pacific which originated at Lincoln Center and is now on tour, can only be described as perfection and stunning. The tour arrived in Cleveland, Ohio, as the winter storm of 2011 reached its full fury. Yet, in the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, no one moved or thought of leaving the theater early. We were in the company of talented performers bringing us one of the great musicals in American theater history.
Before the performance started and before the overture, the opening lines of James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific" are projected on a scrim. After the curtain call, the final sentences of the same story are projected on the scrim. Between the two projections a superior cast tells tales of life in the South Pacific during World War II.
For the sailors and the nurses assigned to islands in the Pacific, this was a time out from life as usual in the United States. They confronted their racial prejudices and wrestled with the fact that any one of them could be dead before sunset. They lived lives of intensity and urgency.
The script has been reorganized from what I've seen in previous productions. This production opens with Nellie and Emile in his home. They indicate to the audience immediately their blossoming fondness for each other. Then the action moves to the military base where the sailors and nurses work. Following a frenetic scene of sailors and nurses preparing to leave, perhaps to go home, the final scene takes place in de Becque's dining room.
Bartlett Sher (director) made several excellent changes in the script. For example, at the end of the play when the sailors and nurses are preparing to fly home, they stand in military precision and sing "Honey Bun" to a march rhythm as they march from upstage toward the downstage area. In this poignant scene, they seem to leave a space for Lt. Joseph Cable.
The voices of all of the performers are first-rate. However, David Pittsinger, who plays the Frenchman, Emile de Becque, is breathtaking. Pittsinger, a bass-baritone, has sung for some of the major opera companies in the world, including the Metropolitan. He is unique in that he sang de Becque in South Pacific for a matinee and in the evening sang the ghost of Hamlet's father in the Metropolitan. He is the perfect French adventurer and lover.
Carmen Cusack makes Nellie Forbush cute and perky. Yet, this Nellie brings a wisdom that comes with maturity to the role. Cusack permits the audience to see her grow from what she was carefully taught to being her own woman.
As Lt. Cable, Anderson Davis has a beautiful voice, acts well, and is handsome. Unfortunately, he seems to have poor posture that detracts from his being a romantic matinee idol.
The large cast makes the show visually and vocally interesting. This production does not have a weak link in the cast.
Michael Yeargan designed sets that create the perfect world for South Pacific. The venetian-blind sets provide a setting that permits the blue sky and the blue ocean always to be part of the lives of the characters.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's words and music remain the standard for excellence in the American musical theater. They were at their best with South Pacific.
This is a not-to-be-missed production. Seldom does a show of this quality come our way.
South Pacific plays in the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, Cleveland, Ohio, February 1-13, 2011. For ticket information, telephone 216-241-6000 or visit www.playhousesquare.org/. Following the Cleveland performances, South Pacific moves to Toronto, Canada, February 15-April 10, 2011. For more information on the tour, please visit www.southpacificontour.com.
The Palace Theatre
- David Ritchey