Bartlett Sher’s elegant staging of The Lincoln Center revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” is an enchanted evening of splendid music and shimmering picture perfect post card images. As the five minute overture swells, the stage slides back to reveal a full 30 piece orchestra playing Robert Russell Bennett’s lush original orchestrations of the beloved songs transporting us to another place and time for a sweeping romantic tale set on a tropical island in the middle of the South Pacific.
Sher’s restrained naturalistic production is a stunning achievement and the first revival since “South Pacific” premiered at the Majestic Theatre in 1949 with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. The original, now considered a classic, ran for five years picking up numerous awards including 9 Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The story written by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan follows two love torn couples and is based on James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Tales of the South Pacific,” where American sailors were stationed during World War II. The main story concerns a US Navy nurse Nellie Forbush (Kelli O’Hara) from Little Rock, Arkansas and a French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Paulo Szot), while the secondary tale focuses on a Navy Airman Lt. Joseph Cable (Matthew Morrison) and a local young Polynesian girl Liat (Li Jun Li). Their relationships will be challenged by the realities of the war and their own racial prejudices.
Sher directed the exquisite production of Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’s “Light in the Piazza” for Lincoln Center on the same Vivian Beaumont stage a few years ago. That production was a highlight of the season. Like he did then, Sher makes magnificent use of the unique Beaumont stage giving the show a grand scaled physical production. This time a breathtaking panoramic of the idyllic island setting with Bali Hai looming in the distant sea and the glistening, constantly changing, sky above. Against this cinematic setting the director has grounded the evening and the performances in the simple truth of the story, giving the characterizations an intimacy that is palpable and the songs a conversational quality like the inner ruminations of one’s mind.
Sher has cast the musical perfectly. The leads, O’Hara and Szot, have lovely chemistry together. Her warm voice soars to the rafters especially during “A Wonderful Guy,” and her version of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" is spirited good fun replete with a cartwheel. Szot, a Brazillian opera star making his Broadway debut, is a real find, a dashing matinee idol with charismatic presence and a rich baritone voice. His rendition of “This Nearly Was Mine” is thrilling and the two together give us numerous reprises of “Some Enchanted Evening” that are simply breathtaking. The entire cast shines with impeccable work.
The show is clearly a period piece, but the themes of, race, the morality of war, and how Americans relate to the world at large still resonate today, perhaps even more so in the light of the Vietnam War and our current war in Iraq. But the overriding unabashedly romantic feel drives the evening and Sher with his design team has lavished consummate care on every detail of this meticulous production.
By: Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dans Papers
“South Pacific” opened on April 3, 2008 at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street at Broadway. Tickets are available by calling telecharge at 212-239-6200