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SOUND OFF: SOUTH PACIFIC on PBS

SOUND OFF: SOUTH PACIFIC on PBSThere Is Nothing Like A (Live) Dame

Today, we are reveling in last night's simply sensational presentation of the multi-Tony Award-winning Lincoln Center revival of SOUTH PACIFIC as it was broadcast on PBS stations across the country in a special LIVE FROM LINCOLN CENTER simulcast commemorating the final performance of the lauded revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. Starring returning revival role originators Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot, this stunning capture of Bartlett Sher's exquisite production is something to truly treasure and devour. I hope you set your DVRs, this was a one-shot deal - but thank Aristophanes for YouTube! You certainly do not want to miss this if you didn't catch it last night. It's a tropical Hawaiian sunset on an overcast grey, New York day. See why here. And there, soon thereafter.

One Enchanted Evening

LIVE FROM LINCOLN CENTER: SOUTH PACIFIC
SCORE: 9.9/10

A cognac of refinement, a Gin Fizz of effervescence, a Sex-On-The-Beach of eros, an Old Fashion in warmth and comfort, a Golden Cadillac of a rare spirit. The ghosts and gods were smiling for sure last night, no question. It seems almost impossible to imagine that this was actually the first Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC since the original fifty-eight years ago. Perhaps the finest of all of Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic and beloved scores - boasting more hits than even THE SOUND OF MUSIC - this is a tantamount in tantalization for theatre lovers and it would be difficult to ask for a better distillation of the experience of witnessing this truly moving, marvelous and magnificent production of one of the greatest musicals ever written. The themes are so prescient and applicable - racism, war, youth versus experience; just to name the top three - and the locale allows for lots of frisky frolicking amongst the marines and nurses bravely participating in the World War II efforts with all the political and social accoutrement that goes along with all of that, lest alone Lt. Cable‘s racist-come-activist story arc. Since this critic is a good three decades off from a tenure writing a political column such as Frank Rich in the New York Times - who has gone from the proclaimed "Butcher of Broadway" from the 1980s to the mid-90s and then shifting to a political Op-Ed columnist in recent years - so any discussion of the politics or racial element is sure to incite heated arguments and this is not a column concerned with those matters so while it will be absolutely impossible to avoid all discussion of the touchier aspects of this show, please be aware it is being kept to a minimum in this review.

 

SOUND OFF: SOUTH PACIFIC on PBSAlthough, it is quite illuminative to consider the fact that so many of the racial themes in this piece are still hot-button issues like few - if any, besides gay marriage - others in this country now, more than a half-century after this brilliant masterpiece was written by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, whose influence and iconic original choreography is still referenced though Christopher Gatelli is due much praise for his naturalistically believable yet snazzy steps for the somewhat complicated and hard to stage material such as "There Is Nothing Like A Dame" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" and the top of Act II. How ever to deal with wireless mikes, especially underneath a literal onslaught of water and shampoo from above in the shower cabin? That is just one example of the hundreds of details that have been so carefully attended to in the creation and enacting of this television adaptation of the innovative revival. This could have very easily been a disaster, but due to the care, attention and obvious commitment from all concerned - cast, crew, directors, all - it is simply one of the best preservations of a Broadway musical on video to date. The purported twelve HD cameras were used to near-maximum effect and it is a Bali Hai-level beauty that is achieved as a result. Bravo - this was not easy to accomplish.

While the telecast had the expected hiccups and dropped shots that are par for the course with a humongous undertaking such as reinterpreting this material for television unquestionably is, the performances all came across with a clarion clarity and if not for the audio problems that plagued many quiet moments this could be called perfect - pristine - but even as it is, it is truly, well, enchanted. Topping off the technical notes before we get to the nuts and bolts of the music and drama, quite a few risks were taken with the especially inventive camerawork - though far from all the marks were landed by the actors, but they only had a rehearsal or two to learn all the new blocking so it's hard to fault anyone too much - and while this production by its very real nature seemed conceptually near-impossible to film as is on the stage under Sher‘s direction, it is 99% the same as the live-in-the-theatre experience - perhaps even richer and clearer. You've never been this up close and personal - whether intentionally or, in a rare occurrence or two, by accident. Seeing Ted Sperling's hand pop up in the camera shot during "Bali Hai" is one of many little moments that actually enhance this visceral, alive and so organically conceptual production of the musical that feels just as fresh, new and stylish as it did live in the theatre - as you, too, can attest if you had the privilege to catch it during the two-year run or on tour. A befittingly perfect capture of a pretty perfect musical. While I happen to find a lot to love in the original film version of the musical directed by Logan - I hate the Glenn Close version, though Harry Connick, Jr. gives it his all and his best and the soundtrack is worth checking out as a result of him and him alone - this is now the definitive capture of the show. While the DVD version of the Trevor Nunn/Susan Stroman OKLAHOMA! Starring a pre-BOY FROM OZ and pre-WOLVERINE Hugh Jackman still remains the gold-standard as far as any stage production of a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical on video goes, this comes damn close. Plus, this was live. Touchable and tangible.

 

SOUND OFF: SOUTH PACIFIC on PBSConsistency is the order of the day with this delectable treat of a production and the master chef Sher serves up a veritable feast for the senses with this production. Across the board, every single performance is spot-on and crystal-clear. Dynamic. Alive. Real. It would have been hard to imagine a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical seeming so twenty-first century but thanks to this director and these performers - and this video preservation of this production - it does. It does. Paulo Szot is charismatic, debonair and golden-voiced. Kelli O'Hara is effervescent and ideal. Danny Burstein is occasionally over-the-top in his hamminess but he is an ingratiating presence and his Ray Walstone homage works well. Plus, Burstein can certainly sell a big ole chorus number like nobody's business - see "There Is Nothing Like A Dame" which ignites the proceedings following the more ruminative, romantic thirty-minute three-song-masterpiece opening sequence comprised of the Rodgers & Hammerstein triple-crown climaxing with "Some Enchanted Evening" which is perfectly sung by Szot, as is every single syllable that is sung by Ms. O'Hara. O'Hara nails every nuance of Nellie Forbush and seems born for the role. It's so fresh, everything she does, and she's been playing this role for two years now! Truly commendable commitment to character and myriad directorial mise-en-scene crop up and the combination creates something affecting and heart-rendering. Szot's studied portrayal of Emile de Becque is so carefully, delicately constructed - as is O‘Hara‘s. To witness their chemistry is a pleasure and a joy. Lt. Cable and Liat much less so, sadly.

While I find a lot lacking in Andrew Samonsky's Lt. Cable - he's just not Matt Morrison in this role, not even close - he surely has a splendid voice and his "My Girl Back Home" with O'Hara as well as his "Younger Than Springtime" are as well-sung as you could ask for. He takes risks by playing Cable so snide and cocky at the start and slowly transitioning into a more enlightened individual by the time the blistering "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught" comes about in the second act. He has excellent chemistry with his co-stars - all - and in general pulls off the swagger and braggadocio of the character, since that is his chosen portrayal. It's not an ingratiating performance, that's for sure. A few character moments ring false, though, so it ultimately is not a performance quite on the same level as the others. I wouldn't want to have to replace Matt Morrison, either. Kudos for that and for everything he does in Act II, especially the excellent and vociferous "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught". What a song, what a moment - even today, now, here. This is the sort of moment great theatre is all about: inciting anger and provoking thoughts, questions, ideas - and, ideally, observations - from the audience. Samonsky tapped into that and made it come alive.

The audience - in the Vivian Beaumont or live at home - cannot help but be rapt, swept up like dust in this tornado of artistry with every element honed to perfection from the costumes to the sets to the performances to the orchestra and musical direction. Sher and Sperling should clear their mantles for some Emmys to go with those LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA Tony Awards they rightfully won for their last Lincoln Center collaboration - with an interesting theatrical link lying in the connection between the composer of SOUTH PACIFIC, Richard Rodgers, and his own grandson: the one and only Adam Guettel, Tony-winning composer/lyricist of the aforementioned last Lincoln Center tenant, THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA. This twenty-first century take on this mid-twentieth century musical brings the syllogism of all that theatrical history full-circle - especially when we are treated to a talk with Guettel himself during the intermission chats. Even in the audience at home we can feel the warmth of home emanating from the stage in another full-circuitry happenstance. After all, there are few songs more heart-melting and heart-breakingly gorgeous than "Some Enchanted Evening", "Bali Hai", "A Wonderful Guy", "Younger Than Springtime", "This Nearly Was Mine" and the other gems in this royal diamond stash of a score from the Overture to the Finale and everything in-between. By the way, when was the last time you heard an orchestra sound as good as it does under Sperling's baton such as at the very beginning of this note-complete telecast? Goose-bumps. Again and again.

Act II contains just as many excellent moments and performances as the first - especially the absolutely earth-shattering performances by O'hara and Szot at the end and Szot's searing "This Nearly Was Mine" - and as to not spoil the show for those who have not seen it, we will conclude with discussion of the show's content with that - but Sher is to be commended for maintaining the tension of the drama in what could come off as a scattershot and confusing second act due to the structure and volatile - and violent - content. Sher juggles it all with panache and aplomb and a bomb-moment never drops. Truly, these portrayals are so rich and dynamic - and Samonsky won me over by the end if only because the character as written has such a clear dramatic, emotional and musical arc - that even if you have seen the show or listened to the cast album or watched one of the film versions a million times before, you'll still find a thousand new things in this rendering of the show to cherish and enjoy for many years to come. Now, this time, it lasts forever - and it's never seemed so fresh and exciting. It really seems new. It really seems real. When was this written, again?! This is how you make authentic, honest-to-goodness theatre work in a television presentation. Hats off to all involved: an all-in-all excellent, enchanting and unforgettable entertainment event that theatre fans can now treasure forever thanks to PBS and Live From Lincoln Center.

It should also be noted that Alan Alda gives an affable and appealing introduction to the presentation and at intermission the conversation between Alda and two of the daughters of Rodgers & Hammerstein (Mary Rodgers, Adam Guettel's mother and composer/lyricist of ONCE UPON A MATTRESS in her own right, being one of them) is revealing, compelling and casts a wonderful new light on the content of the absolutely genius work of those two men in the score material of the second act - and looking back on the first. In a word, LIVE FROM LINCOLN CENTER: SOUTH PACIFIC is goose-bumps: goose-bumps as translated into digital 5.1 FULL HD surround sound as viewed in a state-of-the-Art Theatre in Broadway Heaven. A celestial rendering of SOUTH PACIFIC. The gods are smiling, they simply must be after this performance and HD capture of it. Like lightning and thunder caught in a bottle. A bottle of cognac perhaps?

Lastly, speaking of the absolute north - the pearly gates - when discussing the ultimate SOUTH PACIFIC: If the theatre gods deemed it absolutely necessary for us to wait almost sixty years for this production and for this score to grace the Great White Way once more, then thank Dionysus and all the rest of those deities that the day finally arrived and it has been recorded this exceptionally well. By God(s), it's stupendous and sexy - and the score sounds sensational, fresh as a daisy. Or a Bird-of-Paradise.

Paradise, indeed. Bali Hai, perhaps?

 

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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

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