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St. Louis by Sarah Boslaugh

South Pacific
Fox Theatre

South Pacific
David Pittsinger and
Carmen Cusack

If anyone ever asks me for evidence that audiences still respond to traditional musical theatre done straight, I'll just point to the Lincoln Center Production of South Pacific which is playing at the Fox Theatre through November 21. This production, directed by Bartlett Sher, won seven Tony Awards in 2008 and, although the road show cast is different, it also works well as a touring production.. The great achievement of this South Pacific is that it remains true to the idealistic spirit of the original 1949 production yet the characters and their concerns feel absolutely contemporary. A great musical score and imaginative staging also help, of course, but we've seen plenty of productions over the years which had one or both of those elements and yet seemed more like museum pieces than living theatre.

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).

Cast
Ensign Nellie Forbush: Carmen Cusack
Emile de Becque: David Pittsinger
Ngana: Christina Carrera
Jerome: CJ Palma
Henry: Christian Carter
Bloody Mary: Jodi Kimura
Liat: Sumie Maeda
Bloody Mary's assistants: Diane Phelan, Alexis G.B. Holt, Maryann Hu
Luther Billis: Timothy Gulan
Stewpot: Genson Blimline
Professor: Rusty Ross
Lt. Joseph Cable: Anderson Davis
Capt. George Brackett: Gerry Becker
Cmdr. William Harbison: Robert Hunt
Lt. Buzz Adams: Victor J. Wisehart
Yeoman Herbert Quale: John Pinto, Jr.
Radio Operator Bob McCaffrey: Chad Jennings
Morton Wise, Seabee: Matt Stokes
Richard West, Seabee: Christopher Carl
Johnny Noonan, Seabee: Amos Wolff
Tom O'Brien, Sailor: Eric L. Christian
James Hayes, Sailor: Christian Carter
Kenneth Johnson, Sailor: Gregory Williams
Petty Officer Hamilton Steeves: Bret Shuford
Marine Staff Sgt. Thomas Hassinger: Christopher Johnstone
Lt. Eustis Carmichael: Bret Shuford
Lt. Genevieve Marshall: Cathy Newman
Ensign Dinah Murphy: Julia Osborne
Ensign Connie Walewska: Kristen J. Smith
Ensign Sue Yaeger: Kristie Kerwin
Ensign Cora MacRae: Diane Phelan
Islanders, Sailors, Seabees, Party Guests: Christopher Carl, Christian Carter, Eric L. Christian, Alexis G.B. Holt, Maryann Hu, Robert Hunt, Rashaan James II, Chad Jennings, Christopher Johnstone, Kristie Kerwin, Cathy Newman, Julia Osborne, Diane Phelan, John Pinto, Jr., Bret Shuford, Kristen J. Smith, Gregory Williams, Victor J. Wisehart, Amos Wolff
Dance Captain: Joe Langworth
Assistant Dance Captain: Jacqueline Colmer
Swings: Jacqueline Colmer, Joe Langworth, Rashaan James II, Matt Stokes

Crew
Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Book: Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, adapted from Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener
Director: Bartlett Sher
Sets: Michael Yeargan
Costumes: Catherine Zuber
Lighting: Donald Holder
Sound: Scott Lehrer
Orchestrations: Robert Russell Bennett
Dance and Incidental Music Arrangements: Trude Rittman
Casting: Telsey + Company
Music Coordinator: David Lai
Production Stage Manager: Brian J. L'Ecuyer
Music Conductor: Lawrence Goldberg
Company Manager: Joel T. Herbst
Production Manager: Justin Reiter
Tour Booking, Engagement Management Press & Marketing: Broadway Booking Office NYC
General Manager: Gregory Vander Ploeg Gentry & Associates
Executive Producer: Seth C. Wenig
Music Director: Ted Sperling
Musical Staging: Christopher Gattelli


Photo: Craig Schwartz


-- Sarah Boslaugh

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