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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

A Carefully Wrought South Pacific
at the 5th Avenue Theatre

South Pacific
Rod Gilfry and Carmen Cusack
I'd lay odds that the Lincoln Center production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific is the most satisfying one since Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza created Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque in Joshua Logan's 1949 Broadway production. Certainly it far surpasses Logan's own Technicolor nightmare film of 1958, as well as the somewhat preferable television film of recent years. I have seen the show onstage numerous times (last in a vanity tour production starring an over-ripe Robert Goulet) and none were ever truly affecting or satisfying. Well, rest assured that this splendid national tour, personally prepared by Bartlett Sher with the same loving care he showed with the 2008 Tony Award winning Broadway company is as good as it gets. Sher didn't need or want to re-invent the classic tuner, but he and his collaborators sure resuscitated it.

We first see a marvelous show-curtain depicting the first page of the James Michener novel "Tales of the South Pacific" which R&H adapted for the stage. Then a grand, full orchestra, under the direction of Lawrence Goldberg strikes up the classic overture devised by Robert Russell Bennett. We get a look at the interior house set of Emile's plantation estate, which lets us know immediately that scenic designer Michael Yeargan and lighting designer Donald Holder will be providing a feast for the eyes throughout this enchanted evening.

The cross-cut tales of "knuckle-head" Ensign Nellie Forbush and her relationship with wealthy planter Emile de Becque, and the doomed romance between Lt. Joseph Cable and the young Tonkinese beauty Liat, are handled realistically, honestly and with sensitivity. For once, the supporting characters of Liat's mother Bloody Mary and wheeler-dealer sailor Luther Billis are not reduced to comic caricatures. The show has so much music (and yes, lots of reprises to make sure you go home remembering the music) and so much story that it still runs over two and a half hours plus, but Sher's driving direction never lets you feel the length.

The principal cast is all of a high caliber but I feel the two principal ladies are especially noteworthy. Carmen Cusack's Nellie is as sunshiny as the "bright canary yellow" sky she sings of, but also reveals the darker hues of race prejudice instilled in her via her Little Rock, Arkansas, upbringing, even as she struggles against it. As directed by Sher, Cusack quite simply gives the best acted portrayal of a Rodgers & Hammerstein heroine I have ever seen—and I've seen some good ones—, Vocally, she never misses, through the parade of hits that includes "Wonderful Guy" and a smashing "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" which she keeps from seeming like a one-joke bit. Keala Settle likewise endows her Bloody Mary with a genuine air of menace and ferocity that makes Liat's mother a veritable Indonesian Mama Rose. Settle's voice is a force of nature; her rendition of "Bali H'ai" is intoxicatingly hypnotic, and "Happy Talk" is anything but the quaint little frolic it has so often been interpreted as.

Most of Emile's emotions are communicated through his songs, and Rod Gilfry sings and acts them with a power and beauty worthy of "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine." His rugged good looks and charisma are added assets to the role. Anderson Davis takes his Lt. Cable through an emotional journey from the somewhat snotty Princeton, New Jersey pretty-boy to a love-sick guy willing to cast aside conventions to be with his island love. Davis' "Younger Than Springtime" soars, and "Carefully Taught" chills, as they were meant to, and the once cut but invaluable "My Girl Back Home" duet is served well in the hands of Davis and Cusack. Matthew Saldivar handles the hokey comedy aspects of Billis well, but never dovetails into caricature, even showing genuine sensitivity when the character comforts Nellie during her estrangement from Emile. The rest of the company is just dandy: From the varied array of Seabees to Nellie's fellow nurses, they are distinct as individuals.

The revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center has been going for nearly two years, and will probably end up as the longest run for a Rodgers & Hammerstein revival. The production at the 5th runs another few weeks, and is a don't miss for anyone who really loves the American musical theatre. It proves that a revival can be the freshest show in town.

South Pacific runs Tuesdays-Sundays through February 21, 2010, at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $22-$93 (206-625-1900 or www.5thavenue.org.


Photo Peter Coombs

See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.



- David Edward Hughes



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