It was Joshua Logan who, during the late 1940s, urged Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to adapt James Michener's 1947 novel entitled Tales of the South Pacific. Logan directed the original production, and co-wrote the book. The resultant play has two primary story lines. Nellie Forbush (Carmen Cusack) is a Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas. She falls for Emile de Becque (Rod Gilfry), a Frenchman who lives on an island in the Pacific. He is raising his two mixed-race children. Meanwhile, a Marine Lieutenant named Joe Cable (Anderson Davis) is smitten with a Tonkinese young woman, Liat (Sumie Maeda), on the island of Bali Ha'i. Of course, it's Liat's aggressive mother, Bloody Mary (Keala Settle) who pushes hard for the romance, hoping that her daughter will marry into a more promising situation. Eventually, Joe and Emile go off together and their journey is fraught with danger.
Thematically, the show zeroes in on racial prejudice. Nellie, during the second act, refers to De Becque's deceased wife as "colored." One could hear the audible gasps at the Bushnell during opening night. The children (young actors Christina Carrera and CJ Palma) are truly adorable. Carmen Cusack, as Nellie, is winning. How could Nellie utter such a word? This is rhetorical.
The original rendering lives on, through the revival, because its music is timeless. Cusack sings sweetly and Gilfry's operatic baritone voice carries through the rafters. The songs are memorable and include "Some Enchanted Evening," "There Is Nothing Like a Dame," "A Wonderful Guy," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," "Younger than Springtime," "Bali Ha'i," "Happy Talk" and "Honey Bun." It is actually pleasant to close one's eyes and listen. The actors do great justice to music and lyrics. My feeling is that Settle (as Bloody Mary) is more impressive with "Happy Talk" than with "Bali Ha'i."
Such a full production needs a creative team to coalesce. Bartlett Sher's direction, Ted Sperling's musical direction, and Christopher Gattelli's musical staging, are, needless to say, pivotal. The design team (inclusive of costumer Catherine Zuber and those previously mentioned) is vital. One feels transported backward in time to World War II and the South Pacific.
This remains a resounding musical which spins about various couples and the issue of bigotry. Conductor Lawrence Goldberg begins the evening with his orchestra and the overture. Soon thereafter, two young actors take the stage and sing "Dites-Moi." Three hours later, the enduring performance concludes.
South Pacific continues at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford through April 25th. For tickets, call the box office at (860) 987-5900 or visit www.bushnell.org. Those wishing further information on the tour should visit www.SouthPacificOnTour.com.
- Fred Sokol