Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Truly Enchanted Evening

"South Pacific" at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, March 22, 2008

I'm always distressed when I hear people dismiss the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Sadly, the general thought is of fluff, sappy-sweet and "family friendly" musicals with little else to say.

It's just not true.

Buoyed by the extended run of "The Light in the Piazza" two seasons ago, Lincoln Center Theatre landed the rights to produce the first official Broadway revival of "South Pacific" since its original run of 1949-1953. Reuniting much of the creative team from TLITP also added to the successful bid to the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, including Bartlet Sher (director), Michael Yeargin (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Ted Sperling (musical director).

The result is truly enchanting.

I will admit a true fondness for this show, having appeared in a local production in September of 2001. The events of that month certainly impacted my feelings about the issues and topics explored. (BTW, I played Luther Billis - one of the great roles of the musical theatre.)

This production is a restoration in a sense. The musical orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett for the 30-piece pit orchestra are from the original 1949 production at the Majestic Theatre using all existing material, including manuscripts, the full orchestral scores and the individual instrumental parts played at the time. The effect of a such a large orchestra is unmatchable, highlighted by a retracting stage floor which reveals the orchestra at the beginnings of both acts.

Based on James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, it follows the lives of US service men and women and the natives on the islands they occupy during WWII.

As Nellie Forbush, Kelli O'Hara brings a refreshing, open vulnerability and reality to the role instead of the spunky yet a bit naive interpretation to which one is often accustomed. Her joy at admitting her love for her "wonderful guy" is contagious and her distress when she learns about Emile's children is palpable. She is in terrific voice, particularly in her emotional shading during her reprise of "Some Enchanted Evening" when she finally realizes that her love for Emile is more important to her than anything else she's known.

Her Emile, winningly portrayed by Brazilian tenor, Paulo Szot also avoids the usual grey-headed aging Frenchman. Being a gentleman of a certain age myself, it's nice to see a 44 year old character portrayed as a trim and attractive man with a full head of still-dark hair and only a hint of grey at the temples. Though his tempos are at times a bit indulgent (particularly "This Nearly Was Mine"), his Emile is always deliberate and sure. He certainly justifies Captain Brackett's statement about younger women appreciating the maturity of an older man.

There's excellent chemistry between these two, which is key to making this show work. R&H were famous for creating mismatched pairs, separated by age and circumstance, but allowing love to overrule. Ms. O'Hara and Mr. Szot accomplish this beautifully.

The young lovers Lt. Cable and Liat are Andrew Samonsky (at this performance) and Li Jun Li, respectively. Mr. Samonsky makes a great effort, but his very young and sweet tenor voice doesn't quite have the power to evoke the passion burning inside his handsome Cable. Ms. Li, in
basically a silent role, captures the innocence (though I've always been troubled by Bloody Mary's pimping her out to him so soon after he arrives on the island).

As Bloody Mary, Loretta Ables Sayre in her NY debut brings the requisite deadpan pragmatism of the Tonkinese capitalist, taking full advantage of the economic opportunities afforded by the US military presence.

As her easiest mark is Danny Burstein in my the role of Luther Billis. Mr. Burstein's interpretation reminds me significantly of Bert Lahr and I begrudgingly happily applaud his efforts. (My "Honey Bun" belly-roll was better, though.)

I do have one question about song placement. "My Girl Back Home" seemed a misfit so early in Act I since it's prior to Cable meeting Liat and Nellie learning about Emile's children. From what I remember of the movie version, it came later after these plot points had been revealed.

Director Bartlett Sher gives us a superior cast and a thoughtfully detailed evening without falling into sentiment. He's made some potentially difficult choices in his handling of the racism issues that run through the show. First, he's segregated the black mechanics from the white seabees (BTW, seabees = CBs = Construction Brigade) and the two groups never mingle when they're on stage at the same time. This is first pointedly demonstrated when Nellie and Cable are talking about their families back home and how they disapprove of people who are different. The effect is quite powerful. It happens again in Act II after the Thanksgiving show when Nellie rejects Emile, telling him, "It's something that's born in you" then runs off. Aided by Christopher Gatelli's musical staging, the result is never too slick and balances the fine line of reality and theatricality.

Michael Yeargin's sets, complemented by Donald Holder's lights make it very warm for a NYC March, beautifully evoking the island location. Pay attention to the scrim during "Bali Hai" - it's kinda magical. Catherine Zuber's costumes are typically spot-on.

It's only scheduled to run into June. I hope that's not the case. I'd like to see this enchanted evening stay around for the nice long run it deserves - - I want to see it again.


Sarah B. Roberts said...

I am so looking forward to seeing this on Friday!

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Mondschein, Just read your spot-on review. It's amazing how much we agree. It's too bad you didn't get to see Matthew Morrison, who added just the right amount of emotional heft and terrific voice to Lt. Cable.

And what you voiced exactly what I was thinking when I saw Danny Burstein's Luther Billis: he's a reincarnated Bert Lahr. I can only wonder what his son John will think when he reviews the show for the New Yorker.