A traveling version of Lincoln Center’s new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific has arrived sounding and looking wonderful. It gives a fresh revelation of how much this musical has to offer. The cast sings and acts superbly, and, as perceptively directed by Bartlett Sher, makes the best parts of the script and the score and story come truly alive.
Many people tend to think of this as basically about a World War Two romance between American Army nurse, Nellie Forbush and French plantation owner Emile de Becque on a remote Pacific island. But actually another equally important person inhabits the heart of South Pacific: Marine Lieutenant Joseph Cable. Plus there are the colorful and often-remembered characters Tonkinese merchant/hustler Bloody Mary and the equally enterprising American sailor Luther Billis. This production reminds us that Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan’s script has believable characters in memorable situations all derived from a substantial Pulitzer Prize winning book by James Michener.
As Nellie, Carmen Cusack sings with a beautiful voice, investing Oscar Hammerstein’s remarkable lyrics with convincing meaning, also making Nellie truly charming and genuine. Anderson Davis’s performance of Joe Cable gives the Philadelphia Main Liner the right depth and personality, investing his songs with resonance and truth. As for the mostly acting role of Luther Billis, Timothy Gulan has the perfect sassy edge, never pushing the comic element overboard. David Pittsinger sings Emile magnificently but, on opening night, his portrayal looked shallow, without any of the glamour expected of the role. As Bloody Mary, Jodi Kimura’s take also seemed to lack personality, although vocally she sounded perfect.
Director Sher, his cast and set designer Michael Yeargan give the story as well as the songs memorable new life, completely overshadowing some of the outdated, more patent elements. Racism gets deep emphasis centering on Nellie’s being from 1940s Little Rock, a city known more than 10 years later as harboring rabid bigots. Sher also subtly, pointedly, shows black sailors as separate, not equal. You get a true sense of time and place, finding yourself immersed in a special environment by a shining sea gleaming in the distance, where, during World War II, a US Navy Construction Battalion, (often called “C.Bs”) create a few comforts while waiting for more urgent assignments. The war is equally brought home during scenes at Navy headquarters, making the conflict and its dangers a significant part of how everything develops.
“South Pacific” made its debut in 1949, only a few years after the end of that war and, no doubt, had special meaning to audiences back then, coming so close to the effect of that conflict on their lives. And Rodgers and Hammerstein, already known for musicals with substance and beauty, especially Carousel, came up with something admirably original, featuring eloquent sung poetry by Hammerstein and beautiful music by Rodgers. Sure, several glitzy numbers from that time now seem gratuitous. You could also wonder why there are so many reprises rather than new numbers. But the songs directly, clearly tell most of the story, getting right to it without superfluous dialogue, a virtue. As for the two love-at-first-sight themes, now they may look old-fashioned, but with so much to love in this exceptional musical, you still could fall in love with it all over again.
This Broadway Across America Series production of South Pacific continues through Sunday December 7th at 6:30 at Benedum Center: Tickets and info at 412-456-1390. or www.pgharts.org