There's nothing hip or ironic about Sher's take on this Rodgers and Hammerstein show: it's unabashedly patriotic while also taking a serious look at racial prejudice, a tradition enshrined in American law at the time of the original production. Most of all there's a wonderful score with one hit tune after another sung by a strong cast accompanied by a full orchestra and presented with the clearest sound I've enjoyed at any large show at the Fox in recent memory.
If you know South Pacific only from the 1958 film you may remember it as corny, stodgy, and victimized by director Joshua Logan's unfortunate experiments with color filters. Put that version out of your mind because this production is brisk, emotional and brimming with visual invention.
Carmen Cusack plays Nellie Forbush with a hard edge and older than I remember seeing in other productions. Cusack also emphasizes her character's Southern background which makes it that much easier for us to feel her shock when she is forced to confront her own prejudice. Cusack is saddled with an unfortunate hairstyle which doesn't suit her and I wasn't totally sold on her characterization in the opening scenes but she soon won me over and convincingly portrays the emotional distance Nellie travels over the course of the show.
David Pittsinger, a bona fide opera singer who has sung many roles at the Met and elsewhere, is a strong Emile who feels a bit hesitant in the opening minutes (granted, that may be an interpretive choice) but became much more assured as the evening progresses. He more than delivers in the vocal department (in a role originally sung by opera star Ezio Pinza) and his stage presence becomes stronger over the course of the evening.
The other roles are also covered well, with particular kudos going to Timothy Gulan (Luther Billis), Jodi Kimura (Bloody Mary) and Christina Carrera and CJ Palma as Emile's charming children. Kimura is particularly notable because she doesn't play her character for laughs: instead her Bloody Mary is a tough woman making reasoned economic choices given her circumstances. In this production her character becomes an inditement of colonialism and the distortions it can create in even the most intimate of human relationships.
The show's quick pacing is facilitated by the set design of Michael Yeargan which incorporates flats flown on and off stage and portable furniture allowing for rapid transitions between the story's locations. The production makes good use of the multiple planes offered by the flats, whether by the nurses striking bathing beauty poses on the beach while the main action takes place downstage or by the dominating figure of Bloody Mary seen in the background observing the progress of her plans for Liat. There's even a scene "in one" which allows the action to continue before a curtain of wooden shutters while the set is changed behind it. Finally, the first and last things you see in this production are a stage curtain with text from Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific" which emphasizes the show's connection to its source and also to the lives of real people (Michener wrote "Tales" based on on his experiences serving in the New Hebrides during World War II).
Donald Holder's lighting design is integral to making Yeargan's set design work and includes some amazing color effects, particularly during the song "Bali Hai" in which a mystical vision of the island is created primarily through changes in lighting on a scrim. In fact Holder's sensitive and subtle use of colored light is probably similar to what Logan attempted but failed to achieve on film.
My only criticism of this production is that at times the pace goes past snappy and feels as if the performers are sprinting toward a finish line. Given the show's length (just under three hours) the need to keep things moving is understandable but sometimes it feels like important moments are simply presented and rushed past without giving them a chance to register with the audience.
South Pacific will continue at the Fox Theatre through November 21. Ticket information is available at the Fox Box Office, 527 North Grand Boulevard or through MetroTix online (metrotix.com) or by telephone (314-534-1111 or 800-293-5949).