BWW Reviews: Beautiful SOUTH PACIFIC Revival Sails Into OCPAC
You've got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made / And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade / You've got to be carefully taught.
It's an alarming thought that these very same lyrics—first sung for public viewing back in 1949—still packs quite an emotional, visceral wallop in today's highly-charged geopolitical landscape. Though times certainly have changed from when the Greatest Generation showed true heroism in the battlefields of European and Tropical soil (kicking much axis ass in the process), which then gave way to the slow but steady openness of thoughts and ideologies, it's staggering to realize that in 2010, this conflict feels like a haphazardly patched wound reopened. Prejudice, no matter what the decade, still stings.
Perhaps this fresh exploration of such long-gestating heavy themes—coupled with its superbly creative, supremely vibrant restaging—is why this most recent, exquisite reboot of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical SOUTH PACIFIC succeeds on so many levels. Directed with great intelligence and a fresh perspective by Bartlett Sher, this outstanding revitalized production—now playing for a strictly limited two-week engagement at the Orange County Performing Arts Center through October 24—not only handles the well-known property with beautiful precision and nostalgic care, it also presents it so authentically flavored with the lessons of history, in as much as you can in a frothy Broadway musical. When this show was first presented on the Broadway stage, only a few years had passed since the end of the Second World War. Today, armed with decades of knowledge and spatial distance, this wonderful, beguiling revival is so much more full-bodied than any production that ever came before it.
Based on James A. Michener's 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific, the musical splices together a few of the interweaving storylines from his novel about the wartime occupation of this tropical region during World War II. The novel was later optioned for a stage production by librettist Joshua Logan, who co-wrote the book with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, featuring an impressive score by Richard Rodgers. The original Broadway production opened in April 1949 starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, quickly becoming a critical and box office hit. Pretty much every single song in the musical—from "Some Enchanted Evening" and "There Is Nothin' Like A Dame" to "Bali Ha'i" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair"—have become classic standard staples in the Great American Songbook. In 1950, the musical itself won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and it also won all ten of its Tony nominations, including Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, and all four of the acting Tony Awards.
The stories mostly revolve around the exciting new romance that has blossomed between cautious U.S. Navy nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush (beautifully rendered by former WICKED witch Carmen Cusack) and the more life-affirmingly emboldened French plantation owner Emile de Becque (impressive tour newcomer David Pittsinger). Their romance is troubled not only by the danger of worldwide conflict that embodies their surroundings but also by the noticeable gaps of age and studied sophistication between them. On top of that, they are also plagued by the perceived judgments of the public at large, especially when it comes to race relations.
Despite Emile's confession to her about killing a "bad man" back in his homeland (which has forced his life-of-blissful-exile in the South Pacific), Nellie remains faithfully in love with the much older, more cultured gentleman. A self-effacing "cock-eyed optimist" hailing from "the sticks" of Little Rock, Arkansas Nellie continues to buckle under his enchantingly romantic advances, even with little background knowledge of her new suitor. She briefly entertains to "wash that man right out of her hair" before once again joyously celebrating her love for Emile with her fellow nurses (in song, naturally). The shocking ultimate deal-breaker for Nellie, however, comes later, when she discovers that Emile had fathered two children (the adorable CJ Palma and Christina Carrera) with a native—now diseased—Polynesian woman. (There was an audible gasp from the audience when Nellie, speaking in the vernacular of the time, called Emile's dead wife "colored.")
Meanwhile, on the beach, there is another struggle of a different sort brewing: the endless waiting...and waiting...and waiting. When stuck in circumstances like these, one finds unexpected ways to make life here more like home. Situationally enterprising entrepreneur Luther Billis (Timothy Gulan)—the comic de facto ringleader of the rather bored American sailors and the proprietor of the local laundromat and "bath club"—is on the hunt for more exotic treasures of the area, items much more easily procured by a local Tonkinese peddler that the Seabees have affectionately nicknamed "Bloody Mary" (Jodi Kimura). Billis is desperate to explore the mysterious nearby island of Bali Ha'i, in the hopes of viewing first-hand the notorious Boar's Tooth Ceremony held only there. The island is also supposedly where the locals have banished all the young women in the region for fear of interaction with these anxious, horny American men. Together with close cronies Stewpot (Genson Blimline) and the Professor (Rusty Ross), they devise a plot to convince an officer—the only ones authorized to travel to Bali Ha'i—to take them with him.
It turns out the officer they hope will help their quest is newly-arrived U.S. Marine Lieutenant Joseph Cable (the dashing Anderson Davis), whose cocky, confident demeanor catches the eye of Mary. Suddenly, Mary is transfixed by the young man (she nonchalantly calls him "saxy"), almost as if her savior had suddenly arrived. We soon learn later that she has ulterior motives for him, in the form of her young daughter Liat (the radiant Sumie Maeda), whom Mary hopes to marry off to the American Lieutenant. Mirroring Nellie's own gut-wrenching hesitations, Lt. Cable is torn between falling in love with the beautiful Liat and bowing to the pressures of a closed-minded society that deems their taboo relationship—and the possible offspring the coupling would likely produce—to be completely unacceptable. Apparently along with personal mementos and photos of loved ones, everyone carries other pieces of home with them to the islands: old ideals, conventional ways of thinking, and, yes, prejudices.
But beyond this, the Lieutenant has arrived on the island with orders for a special mission. It seems he has been assigned to convince local plantation owner Emile to help in the covert efforts to circumvent the further naval maneuvers of the invading Japanese enemy. Lt. Cable is initially shocked when Emile refuses to assist the war effort, mostly because of Emile's reasoning for not getting involved: helping the U.S. will surely jeopardize the happiness and contentment he has since found with Nellie.
Unapologetically romantic and deeply meaningful, this lavish new production of SOUTH PACIFIC is, without a doubt, one of the best revivals ever mounted on the stage. Many who remember the original production and newcomers to the stage musical (as well as those whose sole reference point is the 1958 film adaptation starring Mitzi Gaynor, Rossano Brazzi, John Kerr and the incomparable Ray Walston) all have plenty to marvel about with this exciting new take on a distinguished classic. If the Lincoln Center Theatre's goal was to create a Broadway revival that elevates this already well-known musical in such a way to make people forget many decades' worth of awful community Theater Productions and awkward school mountings that may have tarnished this most beloved of properties, then—wow—did they ever succeed! The touring company—featuring a cast of 34 actors and a full orchestra of 26 musicians (the largest orchestra of any touring Broadway production)—replicates much of its original New York-housed magic (seen recently on a live broadcast of PBS's Live from Lincoln Center), resulting in a truly-deserved standing ovation during it's opening night performance in Costa Mesa.
Not once does the show feel preachy; rather it allows us to witness deep, richly flawed, relatable characters struggle with the demons of societal demands that goes against what is truly in their hearts. With this new SOUTH PACIFIC, we feel as if we are meeting these well-known characters for the very first time, dramatizing the heartfelt rawness of their confusing, very real emotions. Both pain and gladness are characterized so vividly genuine, from the rousing ode the men profess about the female species, the hauntingly hypnotic soliloquy about a "special island," the charming declaration of love "across a crowded room," to the heartbreak of losing that one true love. It all has a palpable sense of both timeliness and timelessness, a feat accomplished so effortlessly with each lighting cue, with each swelling of musical touchstones, in each tear drop, and with each shriek of joy.
The revealing new staging, steeped in a much more convincing reality, highlights a few newer things that enrich the show overall. "Bloody" Mary, in this iteration, feels much more than just a comical English-butchering presence. Here, there is a haunting, determined longing in her eyes, of a slightly manipulative mother struggling to elevate her daughter's limitations beyond her own, by whatever means. Cable, heroic and brave in rather tangible matters like war and patriotism, is an empathetic coward of sorts when it comes to facing his own struggle for real love in the face of bigotry. Even seemingly scheme-filled Billis, opportunistic and always seeking self-preservation, conceals layers of a man in need for validation from superiors who refuse to think twice about him. For him, doing good is the right thing to do... but, still, no good deed goes unrewarded.
And, perhaps the most strikingly poignant addition to the show's many thematic layers is the subtle yet present separation of the African-American sailors from their Caucasian peers. Throughout most of the show, this staging choice sheds light at the prejudice even within the Seabees. By the time Cable sings about how people have "to be carefully taught to hate and fear... before it's too late," a few lingering sailors—some white, some black—overhear his speech with strikingly offended reactions, but for decidedly different reasons. It's quite a powerful moment.
Yet with all this talk of heavy themes and emotionally riveting drama, lest we forget that this rousing musical also has some of the most fun, memorable musical compositions ever written... and in this new staging, each song... each musical interlude... feels lushly re-imagined, revealing new layers we may have missed the first few times around. There is just something so instantly cheerful upon hearing that wonderful overture.
Everything about this new SOUTH PACIFIC works: the era-appropriate costumes, the astoundingly alive set pieces, the realistic dialogue delivery, and, of course, the brilliant performances of its terrific ensemble cast. You'd have to be dead inside not to smile during "Bloody Mary" or "There Is Nothing Like A Dame" here both offered just as robust as its ever been. You can truly feel the energy and fun beaming from the boys leaping joyfully on stage.
Even the sight of Bali Ha'i is a simple yet hypnotic effect. Subtle changes of lighting and background actors' incidental movements help convey the mood called for in each scene. And thanks to striking new work by Robert Russell Bennett and Trude Rittman (with musical direction provided by Ted Sperling) the revival even improves on the already gorgeous, sweeping orchestrations from one of Broadway's most successful collaborations from the Golden Age of musicals. Along with CAROUSEL, this features one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most vivid and emotionally-charged scores; even their other shows feel more juvenile compared to the maturity of the work heard here.
Though the characters surely came across interestingly enough in countless versions of this tale, this new iteration feels like a classic reborn, with performances peppered with a nod to current sensibilities, helped tremendously by its gifted cast. As Nellie, Cusack is simply beguiling. She has no problem effortlessly switching from an entranced woman in love, to a naïve ingenue, to a steadfast modern woman who knows what she wants. Her singing voice is just so achingly beautiful and amazing both in softer moments and in bravura belting, a great feat following in the footsteps of Kelli O'Hara, who originated the role in the Lincoln Center revival.
Pittsinger's moving baritone voice and his equally adept prowess in subtle comedy and devastating pathos make him an admirable, riveting Emile du Becque. Just try to resist weeping during his heartbreaking solo on "This Nearly Was Mine" (I, personally, sobbed uncontrollably). As Lt. Cable, Davis is a swoon-worthy presence, handsomely equipped with a mesmerizing persona and an excellent, confident singing voice that will have many wishing they traded places with his lover Liat. Though seemingly less over-the-top and caricature-like compared to prior portrayals of their roles, both Gulan and Kimura bring new visions to their expected respective portrayals of Billis and Bloody Mary. And in two very compelling, non-singing roles, both Gerry Becker (Capt. Brackett) and Peter Rini (Cmdr. Harbison) provide solid acting work.
What a shame that this touring production of Lincoln Center Theater's SOUTH PACIFIC is here in Orange County for a just a mere two weeks. This incredible revival is the embodiment of what great musical theater can accomplish: a wonderful, brilliantly-designed amalgam that combines a deeply rich story, a soaringly beautiful score, inventively creative staging, and a spot-on cast. It's awe-inspiring to think how forward-thinking this show was in dealing with racial issues so boldly back in 1949... and even more peculiar that these seriously heavy themes still resonate today—even more so than we all would like to admit.
Nevertheless, the multiple 2008 Tony Awards this very revival earned are no fluke: this show is unequivocally the absolute best revival of a classic musical in decades. Bartlett Sher's direction is thoughtful, provocative and immensely contemporary without dishonoring its revered source material. To deprive yourself from seeing this particular production while it's still in town would be an unfortunate misstep. Quite simply, this SOUTH PACIFIC is truly magnificent.
Top: David Pittsinger and Carmen Cusack. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Bottom: Anderson Davis and Sumie Maeda. Photo by Peter Coombs.
Performances of Rodgers & Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC at the Orange County Performing Arts Center continue through October 24 and are on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
The National Touring Company of Rodgers & Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC will be led by David Pittsinger (Emile de Becque) and Carmen Cusack (Nellie Forbush), with Anderson Davis (Lt. Cable), Timothy Gulan (Luther Billis), Jodi Kimura (Bloody Mary), Gerry Becker (Capt. Brackett), Peter Rini (Cmdr. Harbison), Sumie Maeda (Liat), Rusty Ross (Professor), original 2008 Broadway cast member Genson Blimline (Stewpot), Christina Carrera (Ngana) and CJ Palma (Jerome).
The ensemble includes Christopher Carl, Christian Carter, Jacqueline Colmer, Alexis G.B. Holt, Rashaan James Ii, Chad Jennings, Christopher Johnstone, Kristie Kerwin, Joe Langworth, Cathy Newman, Julia Osborne, Diane Phelan, John Pinto Jr., Travis Robertson, Bret Shuford, Kristen J. Smith, Matt Stokes, Gregory Williams, Victor J. Wisehart and Amos Wolff.
Tickets to see SOUTH PACIFIC start at $20 and are available online at OCPAC.org, by calling 714.556.2787 and at the Center’s Box Office at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
The 2 p.m. performance on Saturday, October 23 will be sign-language interpreted.
For more information, visit OCPAC.org. For more information on the touring production, please visit www.SouthPacificOnTour.com.