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BWW Reviews: National Tour of SOUTH PACIFIC Brings Rodgers and Hammerstein's Classic to TPAC

There comes a moment late in the second act of South Pacific when Nellie Forbush (played by the luminous Katie Reid), after hearing the disembodied voice of Emile Debecque (the dashing Marcelo Guzzo) over a two-way radio relaying some heartbreaking news-and confirming to her that he has sacrificed all he holds dear in order to help Allied forces overcome Japanese forces-when she runs on the beach, beseeching Emile to "come back" so that she may admit her foolhardy response to him before he left on that heroic mission. She completes her heartrending plea for his safe return with a lovely reprise, however brief, of Rodgers and Hammerstein's stunning "Some Enchanted Evening."

It's during that moment when the sheer emotional power and transformative notion of everything that theater allows which provides a beautifully transcendent experience to everyone in the audience and which exemplifies everything that musical theater has always been and always will be. It's an extraordinary moment in a show that is filled with such glorious opportunities to be transported to a fanciful world of melody and sunshine, of wartime and romance. If there's ever been a better revival of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show than the extraordinary South Pacific now making its way across the country in the wake of the 2008 Lincoln Center revival, I haven't seen it.

There are many striking, staggering moments that work their way effortlessly into your heart: Bloody Mary's desperation to marry off her young daughter Liat to the handsome Joe Cable has never been more palpable or more affecting than in Cathy Foy-Mahi's performance of "Happy Talk" in Act Two; Luther Billis (Christian Marriner) and the Seabees' paean to American womanhood-"There's Nothing Like a Dame"-is just as raucous and joyous as ever; Nellie's sudsy and effervescent "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" has never been more fun (plus, there's the added allure of two able-bodied seaman to get your attention at the top of the number); and Act Two's stunning "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" (sung by Shane Donovan as Joe Cable) and "This Nearly Was Mine" (sung by Guzzo) are dramatic and thoughtful, and as powerfully performed as both songs rightly deserve to be.

Lushly scored by Richard Rodgers, with the inimitable Oscar Hammerstein II providing the lyrics (he shares book credit with Joshua Logan, the original director of the piece), South Pacific is an important part of American musical theater history, an example of artists fashioning a work that would challenge preconceived societal notions, leading a conversation about controversial subjects in so doing. South Pacific's treatment of the themes of racial prejudice and unquestionable devotion to military duty remain just as relevant today as they were during the post-World War II period in which the musical again proved R&H's domination of the genre and proved a worthy successor to their lyrical and bucolic Oklahoma! which perfectly captured the love of place that was an important factor in rousing public opinion early in the war.

This revival of South Pacific, which delighted Broadway audiences for two years beginning in 2008, is a faithful, though certainly evolved, production of the musical, with Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher's original direction recreated artfully here by Sarna Lapine, who served as assistant director for the Lincoln Center production.  Visually stunning, thanks to Michael Yeargan's original set design (here scaled to fit a proscenium theater instead of the thrust design of the Lincoln Center mounting), Catherine Zuber's beautifully crafted period costumes (let's face it, who can resist a man-or woman-in uniform?) and Donald Holder's evocative, atmospheric lighting design, it's a feast for the eyes and the ears (music director Richard Dunn II's 16-member orchestra perform the timeless score with the perfect blend of skill and artistry).

Reid-following in the lovely, yet formidable, footsteps of Mary Martin, Mitzi Gaynor, Kelli O'Hara and Laura Osnes-brings her own vibrant personality and lovely voice to the iconic role of Nellie Forbush, enlivening her performance with grace and wit, articulately taking her audience along on Nellie's journey of self-discovery and self-awareness. Her performance of "Cockeyed Optimist" (which might just be my favorite song from a score filled with my favorite showtunes) is brightly hued and beautifully sung, her exuberant "A Wonderful Guy" a memorable take on that classic and her "Honey Bun" is winningly performed.

Guzzo cuts a rakish figure as Emile DeBecque, displaying a ready wit and self-assured way with a song. His stage presence lends gravitas to his overall performance of the mysterious Frenchman, while his chemistry with Reid underscores their onstage pairing (so vividly shown in their final Act One scene in which they provide an overview of the first act songs and emotions) with a genuine air of believability. His "Some Enchanted Evening" is superb and his rendition of "This Nearly Was Mine" provides one of the evening's most effective moments.

As Lieutenant Joe Cable, Shane Donovan looks as if he stepped off a Marines' recruiting poster, his all-American good looks lending credibility to his characterization and his confident portrayal of the young man battling his upbringing-Joe is essentially a Mainline Philadelphian, despite his Ardmore, Pennsylvania home address-to justify his love for Liat (the lovely Hsin-Yu Liao) is heartfelt.

Cathy Foy-Mahi makes an indeliable impression as Bloody Mary (see the earlier reference to "Happy Talk" for proof), and she shows off her lovely voice on "Bali Ha'i." Christian Marriner is perfectly cast as the always-working-on-a-deal Luther Billis, the cynical Seabee with a heart of gold, and he commands his cohorts Professor and Stewpot (convincingly played by Jake Bridges and Erik Cheski) with a blend of leadership and good humor. Robert John Biedermann is quietly effective as Captain Brackett and James Graham contributes yeoman service as Commander Harbison.  Young Judae'a Brown and Cole Bullock are effective as Emile's smiling children Ngana and Jerome.

The production's sizable ensemble embody-very adroitly and seamlessly-all the other Seabees, Marines, sailors, nurses, party guests and islanders that populate the colorful world created by Rodgers and Hammerstein for their musical, which is based upon James A. Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific.

The national touring company's eight performance Nashville stand continues through Sunday, February 12, and shouldn't be missed. Who knows when we'll see another equally laudable production of one of the seminal musicals in the history of American theater?

South Pacific. Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Joshua Logan and Oscar Hammerstein II. Original direction by Bartlett Sher, recreated by Sarna Lapine. Music staging by Christopher Gattelli. Music direction by Richard Dunn II. Presented by NETworks national touring company. Presented at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall, Nashville. Through February 11. For details, go to www.tpac.org.



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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis