nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 26, 2008
Lincoln Center Theater's revival of South Pacific is the high point of the spring season—exactly the passionate and bittersweet musical romance that I hoped it would be. Its story of American nurses, marines, and seabees becoming irrevocably changed by their time on an island in the South Pacific during World War II is deeply involving; the people we meet on this island—creations of James Michener by way of librettists Joshua Logan and Oscar Hammerstein II—are intensely human and we come to care about them very much. The craft of its story-telling—Logan and Hammerstein's book, Hammerstein's lyrics, and Richard Rodgers's score—is extraordinary. With director Bartlett Sher at the helm, South Pacific has been lovingly and beautifully realized on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, with Ted Sperling's 30-piece orchestra invaluably performing Robert Russell Bennett's original lush orchestrations.
For me, it is the music that makes South Pacific such a transforming experience. Two of the songs are more or less iconic: "Bali Ha'i," whose strains are the very first thing we hear and which recur over and over in the score, sometimes in unexpected places, frames the show's key theme of young men and women far away from home trying to turn the exotic and unfamiliar into something tangible and essential. And "Some Enchanted Evening"—so glorious and stirring—reminds us of the ineffability and inevitability of true love:
When you feel her call you
Across a crowded room—
Then fly to her side,
And make her your own,
Or all through your life you may dream all alone...
Here "Some Enchanted Evening" is sung, unforgettably, by Paulo Szot, a Brazilian baritone with rugged good looks, boundless charisma, and a voice of clarion expressiveness and beauty. His performance as Emile de Becque, a French planter who falls in love with an American Navy nurse named Nellie Forbush, is the most captivating element of this excellent production. His second act aria, "This Nearly Was Mine," which comes at the turning point of the plot, when it appears that Nellie's prejudices are going to stand in the way of their pure and preordained love, is a bona fide show-stopper.
It is Nellie, though, who is South Pacific's protagonist; the play charts her growth from a self-professed Arkansas hick to a mature woman who is able to understand the narrowness of some of the feelings lodged deep in her psyche, and to eventually realize what's most important in a life that can be cut short without even a moment's notice (this is wartime, after all; the overriding sense of marking time in the wake of authentic purposefulness pervades this show). Kelli O'Hara portrays Nellie and shows us vividly her progression in a performance that's both exuberant and thoughtful. O'Hara's songs are the ones written expressly for the show's original, singular star, Mary Martin, and she puts them over as well as anyone could hope.
Counterpoint to Nellie and Emile's love story is provided in the sadder tale of Lt. Joe Cable, a marine who has been ordered to find and convince de Becque to join him on a potentially suicidal mission that might advance the American cause against the Japanese significantly. Joe, keenly aware of his mortality, lets scheming seabee Luther Billis talk him into R&R on the exotic island of Bali Ha'i, where he falls in love with Liat, the beautiful young daughter of a Mother Courage-ish Tonkinese entrepreneur called Bloody Mary. Matthew Morrison plays Cable, and does a nice rendition of his ode to impossible love, "Younger than Springtime"; he also, later in the show, gives voice to a brief soliloquy in which he tries to explain why he and Nellie and so many others like him are so resistant to what's foreign:
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade—
I marveled, watching a show I knew so well (though had never seen on stage before), at how superbly crafted Hammerstein and Logan's book is and at how deeply affected I was by its events and its message. Though Loretta Ables Sayre is a fiercer Bloody Mary that I had hoped for (and unfortunately a less vocally gifted one than "Bali Ha'i" and her second act number, "Happy Talk," require), I was still greatly moved by the Cable-Liat story, particularly when Li Jun Li, as Liat, did a gorgeous fan dance (with what appeared to be a flimsy silk scarf).
I was also touched by Danny Burstein's heartfelt portrayal of Luther Billis, whose priorities—an unrequited love for both Nellie and country—are clearly well-ordered, his relentless hucksterism notwithstanding; and, most unexpectedly, by Skipp Sudduth's performance as the island's gruff senior American officer, Captain Brackett. In a brief speech near the play's climax, he is able to express the terrible powerlessness of a man of action forced to remain too long on standby; it is perhaps the most resonant moment in a play whose timeliness (timelessness?) is manifest.
There are specific elements here or there to quibble about, such as Sher's inclusion of a slow-motion military parade that feels designed to tug at our collective guilt about the soldiers we've sent to Iraq; but generally this is an experience to treasure. I won't forget anytime soon the visceral thrill of the first entrance of the seabees, singing "Bloody Mary" as they raced onto the stage after vaulting over dunes far upstage (the musical staging is by Christopher Gattelli). And I certainly will cherish the opportunity to hear these remarkable Rodgers & Hammerstein songs performed by a generously large and talented orchestra, and sung with such full-voiced emotion by Szot. If you see just one revival of a musical this season, make it South Pacific. You'll be reminded what makes a show into a classic.