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Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 4, 2008

Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan. Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener. Original stage production directed by Joshua Logan. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Musical staging by Christopher Gattelli. Sets by Michael Yeargan. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lighting by Donald Holder. Sound by Scott Lehrer. Orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett. Cast: Kelli O'Hara, Paulo Szot, Matthew Morrison, Danny Burstein, Loretta Ables Sayre, Sean Cullen, Victor Hawks, Luka Kain, Li Jun Li, Laurissa Romain, Skipp Sudduth, Noah Weisberg, and Becca Ayres, Wendi Bergamini, Genson Blimline, Grady McLeod Bowman, Charlie Brady, Matt Caplan, Christian Carter, Helmar Augustus Cooper, Jeremy Davis, Margo de la Barre, Christian Delcroix, Laura Marie Duncan, Mike Evariste, Laura Griffith, Lisa Howard, Maryann Hu, Zachary James, Robert Lenzi, Garrett Long, Nick Mayo, George Merrick, William Michals, Kimber Monroe, Emily Morales, Darious Nichols, George Psomas, Andrew Samonsky, Jerold E. Solomon.
Theatre: Lincoln Center Theater - Vivian Beaumont, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm, Sunday at 3 pm
Running Time: 3 hours, including one 15 minute intermission.
Audience: May be inappropriate for 7 and under. Children under the age of 5 are not permitted in the theatre.
Ticket price: Orchestra and Loge (Rows A-C) $120, Loge (Rows D-E) $75.
Tickets: Telecharge

Paulo Szot and Kelli O'Hara.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

What a joy it can be to be swept away by a tidal wave! But don't worry: The most engulfing and enrapturing experience of this year - and quite a few others in recent memory - is not the product of global warming or any other natural disaster. In fact, the word "natural" fails to properly describe its provenance: Something this transporting, this precise, and this beautiful can only be crafted by the most skilled of hands.

Specifically, those of Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Joshua Logan, who created the enduringly exquisite musical called South Pacific, which Lincoln Center Theater is now resuscitating in a glowing revival at the Vivian Beaumont. As directed with superb reverence by Bartlett Sher and performed by an astonishing company, this production speaks and sings to your heart in a way few shows today do.

This may shock you if you place too much faith in conventional wisdom. Showered with honors (including the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama) when it opened in 1949, this once-groundbreaking title has had the most fraught history of the biggest of the Rodgers & Hammerstein hits. It was cursed by a stuffy movie version, relegated to infrequent productions, and dogged by the dreaded D word: "dated."

And why not? This adaptation of stories from James Michener's 1946 book Tales of the South Pacific centers on relationships more affected by American attitudes toward race than by the whirring airplanes of the Japanese. Sixty years ago, this was explosive, controversial stuff. But after 40 years of Civil Rights, and with a half-white, half-black senator in prime contention to be the next President of the United States, isn't all that now well behind us?

Maybe. But when Hammerstein and Logan's book jabs its characters with questions about the battle between one's heart and one's upbringing, and when Rodgers's melodies unfurl into some of the lushest songs ever heard on Broadway, nothing about this evening feels locked in the mid 20th century. When it's at its most serious, Sher's visually and aurally opulent production is every bit as timeless.

Matthew Morrison and Li Jun Li.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

When Navy nurse Nellie Forbush (Kelli O'Hara) and French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Paulo Szot) nourish their romance or see it disintegrate when he reveals to her the mixed-race children he fathered with his late Polynesian wife, the expectation and tension between them are palpable. The sex-at-first-sight-love-at-second joining of Lieutenant Joe Cable (Matthew Morrison) and native girl Liat (Li Jun Li), daughter of the profiteering Bloody Mary (Loretta Ables Sayre), explores the more visceral and sadder side of love ruined by institutional hate.

The songs enriching these intertwining plots span a tuneful gamut of human emotion as deep as the Pacific. Everyone knows Emile's resplendent "Some Enchanted Evening," in which chance assumes a cosmic and eternal importance, and "This Nearly Was Mine" for Emile's darkest moments of despair. But Bloody Mary's panoramic come-on "Bali Ha'i," imploring Cable to venture to the island of his dreams, and intimate "Happy Talk," to persuade him to stay in Liat's arms, are equally involving, as are Cable's emotional and physical release in "Younger Than Springtime" and his realization of his own bestowed prejudices in "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught."

Even when the story turns to its subsidiary Everymen, it delights. Hammerstein and Logan adopt a somewhat lighter brush for the out-for-himself Seabee Luther Billis and commanding officers Captain Brackett (Skipp Sudduth) and Commander Harbison (Sean Cullen), but paint with no less exacting detail the full range of colorful personalities around whom the Pacific operation revolves. Their songs ("Bloody Mary," "There's Nothing Like a Dame"), mix grit and humor in ways that make them just as delicious as the ballads.

It's only when these life-or-death and life-at-any-cost worlds collide does this South Pacific cease to enthrall, something that usually occurs at O'Hara's feet. This gifted singer and actress, who mixes overt sexiness with a sly intelligence, has stood out in shows as diverse as Follies, Sweet Smell of Success, and My Life With Albertine. In The Light in the Piazza, which Sher directed at the Vivian Beaumont three years ago, she tamped down these qualities to create a playful and curious young woman exploring the boundaries of her own limitations.

But the difference between such ensemble-styled roles and a full-out star part quickly becomes clear here. O'Hara is riveting in her dramatic scenes, looking like she'd take steel wool to her skin to scrub away Emile's taint when she learns his secret, and as if her soul has dissolved when facing the possibility of his death later on. But she's not the irrepressible spirit she describes in "A Cockeyed Optimist" or the defiant feminist of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair." She comes across as a graduate student in acting projecting careful introspection, which is the last thing the ebullient "A Wonderful Guy" or the all-for-fun "Honey Bun" need.

Nellie, originated by the innately impish Mary Martin, must be both the young girl energized by life's wonders and the grown woman thrust into its pain. O'Hara can't provide the entertainment that should accompany the enlightenment, never projecting the spontaneous whimsy of a star loving what she's doing and dying for you to feel the same.

Morrison's problem is the opposite. Though dynamite in his lighter scenes, he strains as his role's weightiness increases, connecting with his vital songs on the superficial level of the less-experienced Cable, but not of the more complex, conflicted man he eventually becomes.

Loretta Ables Sayre and company.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Everyone else is spectacular. Szot, an opera notable, brings an unimpeachable baritone, nuanced acting skills, and an effortless sense of comedy to Emile, as ingratiating in his own semi-silly reprise of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" as he is sensual in "Some Enchanted Evening" and searing in "This Nearly Was Mine." Sayre is a down-and-dirty Bloody Mary who wrenches you into her fantasies without ever falling for them herself. Li is an appealingly innocent Liat, while Burstein is a complete hoot as the opportunistic Billis.

Best of all, however, might be the orchestra. While the infinite vistas of beach of Michael Yeargan's set, Catherine Zuber's crisp costumes, and Donald Holder's excellent tropical lighting give the show the opulent look it deserves, the 30 outstanding musicians conducted by Ted Sperling give it an even more invigorating sound. Their playing of Robert Russell Bennett's peerless original orchestrations reminds you with every note how gloriously musicals once insisted on catching your ear.

If there's anything dated about this show, it's its mindset that the theatre should be a place where even the intervening concerns of the outside world are sublimated to the magic of art. Sher's meticulous and delicate staging, the 40-person cast, and the rich look and sound of everything put to shame the season's other threadbare and vulgar revivals, Grease, Sunday in the Park with George, and Gypsy.

Those keep you anchored in your seat, but this one sets you sailing the seas. To where? As Bloody Mary coos to Cable, "Bali Ha'i may call you any night, any day." But it's the siren song of this magnificent South Pacific you'll struggle to resist in the weeks, months, and hopefully years to come.

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