BOTTOM LINE: Go to be entertained, or go because you’re a fan of the musical and it’s a rare opportunity to see a Broadway-caliber revival, but not because you are expecting to see something new.
South Pacific is back at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, in its first Broadway remount in more than 50 years, since its 1949 opening. Lincoln Center is banking on another hit like 2005's The Light in the Piazza, having assembled the same team for South Pacific: Tony nominated director Bartlett Sher and Tony nominated lead actress Kelli O'Hara, and actor Matthew Morrison. And it looks like they got it. The musical is due for a commercial transfer and a Broadway run through 2009. And though the production is very well done, and has all the requisite pieces in place for a hit, I always felt a certain amount of emotional distance as an audience member. Ultimately the material itself seemed too outdated to truly connect to.
Based on Pulitzer Prize winner James Michener's collection of short stories "Tales of the South Pacific", the musical tells the story of a young nurse from Arkansas stationed in the South Pacific during World War II, and the French plantation owner Emile de Becque she falls in love with.
When South Pacific originally opened it was only four years after the end of World War II. Everything about the musical was resonant and timely. It would be like witnessing a production of “Iraq War, the Musical” today (Oh, God, please no...). From its examination of wartime life on the islands of the South Pacific to its look at interracial relationships, a key source of conflict in the play, the production challenged its audience with its progressive content. Lincoln Center has decided to revisit the musical which has long been the staple of community theatres and high school auditoriums everywhere, but the real question is, is it still relevant? Are our modern day values going to connect to the central conflicts of the play; that Nellie feels she can't marry Emile de Becque due to (gasp) the two children he had with his now deceased Polynesian wife? Or is the musical valuable as a museum piece, a snapshot of the values of its time? Certainly Bartlett Sher's staging takes these values into consideration, keeping the African American Sea-bee's staged at a distance in ensemble numbers from their white counterparts. These choices to show the racism inherent in the times are effective, but Nellie's quick decision to not marry de Becque, and Cable's song of “You've Got To Be Carefully Taught”, ring outdated in terms of emotional connectivity.
Not having seen a version of the musical myself since watching the 1958 film about 15 years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself humming to most of the songs. I often found myself thinking, "Oh, that's what this song is from." The music is beautiful and sung with verve by the strong cast. Perhaps casting an opera star like Paulo Szot to play the mysterious Frenchmen Emile de Becque was a bit risky, but he switches genres seamlessly and lends a gravitas to the role. Kelli O'Hara as the formidable and loveable Nurse Nellie Forbush hits her marks. She's cutely clumsy, gets embarrassed when she's caught singing in the shower, and seems quite the cheerful dame, except for that small streak of racism....
Other notable performances include Danny Burstein as the enterprising Luther Billis, and Loretta Ables Sayre as a marvelous Bloody Mary, the opportunistic islander who sells her grass skirts and shrunken heads to the sailors. Michael Yergan's set design is also quite lovely, with modern day technology and projections allowing the Island of Bali Hai to appear and disappear on the horizon throughout the show. Bartlet Sher makes good use of the lush rolling dunes of sand, palm trees, and an airplane set as a back drop for "We Ain't Got Dames." Rows of bamboo thatching hung from the ceiling cast moody shadows and are cleverly used to partition off rooms.
Call me crazy, and I'm sure fans of the musical will, but despite the fact that America once again finds itself at war, and despite its strong performances, seamless direction, and beautiful design choices, the musical worked better for me as a chance to relive Rogers and Hammerstein's sweeping score and memorable tunes, then as a relevant piece of theatre for a 2008 audience.
(South Pacific plays at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street. Tickets are available at telecharge.com.)