Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tonight's Theater: South Pacific

This evening I saw the national touring company of the Lincoln Center revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC. Over the years I have been privileged to see a great many musicals on the stage, but rarely, if ever, have I experienced such a superb evening of theater. It was a thrilling, awe-inspiring experience.

I'm especially familiar with this particular show, having played the lead role myself as a teenager. Despite the passage of more than a few years, I can still recite many lines in my sleep -- yet this felt like a show I'd never seen before. It was fresh, energetic, richly detailed, romantic, and reinvented. I have a feeling I'm going to run out of cliched adjectives before I'm done writing this post...

Carmen Cusack plays Nellie, the nurse stationed on a South Pacific island during the early days of World War II. Nellie is, in her words, a "little hick" from "Little Rock, A-R-K," but this is the first time I've seen Nellie actually portrayed as a Southerner, accent and all. Cusack's beautiful, thoughtful handling of the lyrics is accompanied by a country twang in her singing which was both surprising and perfect. A reviewer of the show's stop in Los Angeles last summer (with a partially different cast) wrote that Cusack's singing was "so stunningly suffused with heart that it was as if I were hearing the songs for the first time."

As for David Pittsinger's handling of the role of Emile de Becque...I think he might just have had the finest singing voice it's ever been my privilege to hear on the stage. His renditions of "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine" were transcendent, unforgettable moments. They filled the theater with music and emotion. I only wish I had a recording of him singing these songs.

Pittsinger's acting was excellent; I've never seen the role done so well. Pittsinger and Cusack also brought some real heat to Emile and Nellie's romance, another touch which gave the show a somewhat revisionist feel. (Cusack and Pittsinger recently discussed their interpretations with the Orange County Register.)

Anderson Davis was a fine Lt. Cable, with a rich voice that thrilled singing "Younger Than Springtime." The sailors were all terrific, with the "Bloody Mary"/"There is Nothing Like a Dame" sequence being another highlight among many great scenes. When the sailors bounded onto the stage singing "Bloody Mary," I knew at that moment I was seeing something really special.

I've been contemplating what elevated this production so far above the typical civic light opera rendition of a classic musical. (I enjoyed seeing Howard Keel and Jane Powell in this show in the '70s...great fun for me as a SEVEN BRIDES fan, but I remember it as being rather tired...nothing like this production.) I'm not sure I've quite been able to put my finger on the precise source of the magic...there were so many distinctive aspects to this production, starting with the flawless cast.

The set design was as good as any show I've ever seen; a sequence with airplanes flying overhead near the end was a "wow" moment. The staging was superb, with the tiniest details working together to convey the show's themes of romance and racism; for instance, during "Bloody Mary" and "There is Nothin' Like a Dame," three black sailors are subtly yet noticeably segregated from the other sailors. The show also did an excellent job believably conveying the peril in the South Pacific. This wasn't a sunny island, but a place where the Americans stationed there could end up in real danger.

Some comments from other reviewers:

Michael Quintos of Broadway World: "...superbly creative, supremely vibrant restaging...unequivocally the absolute best revival of a classic musical in decades...truly magnificent."

John Farrell of the Long Beach Press-Telegram: "See this if you see nothing else this year."

Eric Marchese of the Orange County Register: "Gleaming and new...grand, first-rate staging."

The Orange County Performing Arts Center site currently has a video montage of scenes with this cast. (A montage with a different Emile is on the South Pacific on Tour site.) The show plays in Costa Mesa, California, until October 24th. If it comes to your city, grab tickets immediately. Theater simply doesn't come any better than this.

Related posts: Tonight's Theater: The Phantom of the Opera; Tonight's Theater: My Fair Lady.

October 16th Update: I'm going back next weekend before the show leaves town. Yes, it was that good! A review of the same cast's stop in Chicago opined that "walking 20 miles in freezing rain" would be "a small price to pay for this theatrical masterpiece."


Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Sounds fantastic. PBS' "Great Performances" showed the live performance of the "South Pacific" Broadway revival this summer. I was especially taken with the set that displayed a large map of the stretch of islands in the Pacific Theater of WWII as a backdrop. It seemed to evoke the map graphics sometimes used in old movies, and also splashed a dramatic point of reference for the audience who might not be familiar with that history. The map served as a bold reminder that this was not, as you say, a make-believe fairy tale: "This wasn't a sunny island, but a place where the Americans stationed there could end up in real danger."

Thanks for a great review. I wish I had seen it.

4:58 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I loved that set, Jacqueline. Exactly as you said, it was both evocative of the era and was also a part of what conveyed the danger, with dots on the map bearing labels like "Guadalcanal."

Another nice touch was that prior to the start of the show, the scrim showed the first paragraphs of Michener's TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC, with a different Michener passage appearing after the final curtain call. The entire production was filled with beautiful details such as that.

I hope you have an opportunity to see this production at some point!

Best wishes,

9:26 AM  

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