Friday, April 04, 2008

South Pacific (The SOB Review)

South Pacific (The SOB Review) - Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center, New York, NY

***1/2 (out of ****)

From the moment Ted Sperling cues his 30-piece orchestra, commencing the initial swells from the overture for one of the 20th Century's most beloved musical scores, it's clear that this South Pacific is going to be a special island of enchanting entertainment in a Broadway sea dotted with lesser destinations.

Bartlett Sher's surprisingly innovative yet entirely natural direction begins by peeling back the stage to reveal the full orchestra, serenading the audience with Robert Russell Bennett's lush orchestrations for the prelude to one of the truly classic scores from the oeuvre of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The audience responds rapturously -- and who can blame them given that it's taken an astounding 54 years since these familiar strains were last heard on the Great White Way.

Fortunately, it serves as a harmoniously honest harbinger of things to come as it depicts the early fragility of America's Greatest Generation, which is regrettably on the cusp of forever fading into history. This truly majestic revival is not only mesmerizing with its timely focus on the sacrifice of war, but is absolutely gorgeous in Sher's loving interpretation aided by striking set (Michael Yeargan) and lighting (Donald Holder) designs.

What's more, Hammerstein and Joshua Logan's Pulitzer Prize-winning book provided its earliest 1949 audience with one of the stage's first forthright depictions of racial bigotry and hate. Way ahead of its time, its enduring message still seems rather prescient even for today's audiences who -- thanks in no small part to our media during this presidential election cycle -- continue to deal with issues related to the color of one's skin.

Sher maintains South Pacific's twin story centerpieces: the inability of Arkansas-born Ensign Nellie Forbush (Kelli O'Hara) to accept the love of Frenchman Emile De Beque (Paulo Szot) -- not because he may have once killed a man, but because he fathered two children from a Polynesian woman -- coupled with Lt. Joseph Cable's (Matthew Morrison) personal disgust with himself over rejecting Liat (Li Jun Li), the Polynesian beauty born from loudmouth trader Bloody Mary (Loretta Ables Sayre), simply because of race.

But Sher also almost imperceptibly underscores the racial divide by slyly segregating what lonely African American troops inhabit this island to the sidelines. It's an image that sadly and quite outrageously was the norm in American society 60 years ago, yet it's one that's haunted me ever since taking in this production last Saturday.

If there's any weak moments in the show, it's when the banal barracks banter ensues among officers as they peruse the vast National Geographic-style map that is curiously devoid of the two fictional islands taking center stage in the musical.

Now, I must confess right here that South Pacific, for all its innovation, powerful messages and resonant score, will always hold a special place in my heart. A whopping 30 years ago this fall, I "enjoyed" my lone stage appearance as Lt. Joe Cable in my high school production. Not only do I have fond memories of that effort, but also for the 1958 film with Mitzi Gaynor, Rossano Brazzi and John Kerr; the 2001 television movie with Glenn Close, Rade Serbedzija and Harry Connick, Jr.; and also a couple other stage versions including a late 2001 touring production with Erin Dilly, Michael Nouri and Lewis Cleale.

But Lincoln Center's staging ranks as the best of the lot, and here's why.

If I've had a quibble through the years, it's that typically, very, very mature men are cast as Emile, the expat who's found refuge in this formerly quiet little corner of the South Pacific after killing a town bully. For me, the plausibility gap has always been in believing that the young and naïve Nellie would actually fall for someone looking old enough to be her grandfather.

Reminding us fairly early on that Emile is just 44 years old, Sher successfully shakes and stirs a credible concoction with handsome Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot opposite Broadway's serious musical "It Girl" Kelli O'Hara. The two make an attractive, completely believable pair.

Through her nearly perfect performance, O'Hara effectively evokes another place and time when, tragically, even nice typical white persons were carefully taught to be racist. In his stirring portrayal of the more evolved expat, Szot succeeded in eliciting genuine tears and chills (from me) as he realizes Nellie's rejection in singing "This Nearly Was Mine."

But it's Morrison as Lt. Cable who provides the most dynamic counterbalance to the question of race, not only as his Princeton-educated, would-be hero falls in love with Liat, but particularly when his moral indignation overcomes his ignorance in the potent "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught."

There are still plenty of great lessons to be learned from this groundbreaking and entertaining landmark musical. But you better make your way to Lincoln Center by June 15 when this school of a revival closes for the summer.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
South Pacific: Some Enchanted Opening Night (April 3, 2008)
Is Johansson's South Pacific Journey Just Happy Talk? (March 14, 2007)
Will Broadway's First-Ever South Pacific Revival Provide Some Enchanted Evenings? (December 19, 2006)

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At 04 April, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

Call me as corny as Kansas in August, but I loved South Pacific. It was my first Rodgers and Hammerstein musical on stage, and I just thought it was so rich and funny and moving. Your review really covers it all. The only thing we disagree about is, I even liked the giant maps!

At 04 April, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

And of course to me, you'll always be Lieutenant Cable!

At 04 April, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Awww. Thanks Esther. I can only hope that my one shot at glory was even close to a teensie weensie fraction of one percent as good as Matthew Morrison was.

Morrison will forever be Lt. Cable to me. In the meantime, I don't mind being just plain Steve.

At 04 April, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked the giant maps too, Esther !

With that amazing voice complemented by those amazing abs , I think Matthew Morrison will be a Lt. Cable for the ages....:-)

At 04 April, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One more thing- there was a touring production about 4 years ago with Robert Goulet, Amanda Watkins and Gretha Boston.

At 09 October, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Waited and Waited for tickets. Kept checking the box office said forget it. Then went to
Prices where high in the summer bu have come down and are now more affordable.

At 17 December, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We also just bought off of and we noticed the prices were at face or just over. We bought tickets and actually got better seats cheaper than the box office.


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