New York City Theater
Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center
Over the years, since the original Broadway staging of “South Pacific” 59 years ago, the great musical has made its way across the country and indeed around the world.
“South Pacific” is as familiar to most of us as our own back yards.
Still, this revival is the show’s first reappearance on Broadway (specifically, Lincoln Center). Inevitably, it carries the burden of comparisons with the giants. Will the new production match up to that original show in 1949? Will Kelli O’Hara and Paulo Szot (the new stars) meet the challenge of Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza?
As it turns out, this production need have no fear of comparisons. This revival proves to be a brilliant, awesome production, and the ghosts are laid to rest. The show is fresh, original, newly-coined—in fact, “younger than springtime,” as one performer would say. Although it is a World War II story, set in the Pacific, it reaches out to today’s audience. Director Bartlett Sher has put his own stamp on this production, getting stellar performances from the leads and chorus as well. But he remains true to the glorious tunes of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein and to the Josh Logan book (which Logan adapted from James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific”).
For any rare soul unfamiliar with “South Pacific,” the book focuses on two sets of lovers—first, the spunky nurse Nelly Forbush (Kelli O’Hara) and her French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Paulo Szot), and, secondly, Lt. Joseph Cable (Matthew Morrison) and his Tonkinese girl Liat (Li Jun Li). Both romances are marred by Nellie and Joe’s racial prejudices (or, rather, the prejudicial world from which they came). But a good deal more goes on in “South Pacific,” as Sea-bees and nurses stationed on a Pacific island prepare their own Thanksgiving show and trade with the natives. There is, for instance, one Bloody Mary, who sells shrunken heads and grass skits and shrewdly builds a nest egg.
Both O’Hara and Szot create vulnerable, human characters, both in song and speech, with glorious voices that are made for the Rodgers-Hammerstein songs. And Matthew Morrison (Joe Cable) and Li Jun Li are endearing as the other pair of lovers. Both Lorretta Ables Sayre (as Bloody Mary) and Danny Burstein (Luther Billis) offer colorful comic relief in contrast to the near-tragic moments. But the entire ensemble, with smaller roles, are all worthy of praise, and in good hands.
Sher knows how to move his people about the stage. It never seems like a chorus number when the company appears on stage, but, rather, like a gang of Sea-bees lounging about the island base. Their exchanges, against the backdrop of Michael Yeargan’s excellent set, are spontaneous, authentic in feeling. With state-of-the-art equipment available, the story moves smoothly from scene to scene.
This latest “South Pacific” offers a rare moment in theater, and, in fact, reduced this particular reviewer to tears. What better tribute can one pay?
April 7, 2008