April 12, 2008

Completely Enchanted by "South Pacific"

One entire page in the Playbill for Lincoln Center Theater’s sensational new revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s South Pacific is devoted to an acknowledgment of the 14 individuals and institutions who put up the extra funds for the production. Now I’m adding my thanks too. Because you can see what a difference their money has made in Michael Yeargan’s idyllic set, Donald Holder’s sensitive lighting, Catherine Zuber’s spot-on costumes and the uniformly brilliant cast of 40.

But nowhere are the extra dollars more evident than in the care that has been given to the music, something that shouldn’t be, but often is, the neglected stepchild in today’s Broadway musicals. It's not the score that usually gets short-shrift, but how it’s played. There are 30 musicians in the South Pacific orchestra, almost twice the current number for a Broadway musical and six times as many as those playing in the mini-orchestra for the current revival of Sunday in the Park with George. This means the South Pacific orchestra is able to play Robert Russell Bennett’s original 1949 orchestrations including a sumptuous, nearly six-minute-long overture that had the audience at the performance my friend Bill and I attended cheering before the show had even begun.


In an extra gracious nod to the players, the front part of the Vivian Beaumont’s thrust stage actually retracts so that you can see the tuxedoed and gowned musicians, beautifully conducted by Ted Sperling, as they play through that opening medley of gorgeous melodies like “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Ha’i”, “Younger than Springtime” and “This Nearly Was Mine.” Every aural detail has been given attention: sound designer Scott Lehrer has somehow managed to make each note and lyric heard clearly without strapping those lumpish cigarette-pack-sized mikes to the actors. This is how the music was meant to be heard and it’s an unbelievable treat to be able to hear it this way.


I’d like to think that this is the start of a new trend. The size of orchestras has been shrinking steadily over the last couple of decades, and virtually disappeared in the recent John Doyle productions of Sweeney Todd and Company that had the actors playing instruments in between saying their lines. But the current revival of Gypsy also has a larger than normal orchestra with 25 musicians, including my husband K. And, seated on stage behind a scrim that rises and falls as the action requires, they, too, get their moments in the spotlight.


The actors rise to the high level that the musicians sets
in both Gypsy and South Pacific. And there is no doubt that the hardest decisions for Tony voters will be those categories in which both shows are nominated. Kelli O’Hara has been terrific before in shows such as Sweet Smell of Success, Light in the Piazza, and The Pajama Game but she breaks into the front ranks of musical stars with her performance as the spunky navy nurse Nellie Forbush, a southern girl who falls in love with a French planter on the Polynesian island where she is stationed during WWII but whose racial prejudice causes her to break off their affair when she learns that he had a previous relationship with a native woman. The role was originally written for Mary Martin but O’Hara makes it her own and will give Patti LuPone, also certain to be nominated for her powerhouse performance as Mama Rose in Gypsy, a run for her money for the Best Actress in a Musical award.

Similarly, the Brazilian opera singer Paulo Szot’s lush baritone and virile good looks redefine the role of Emile de Becque, the planter Nellie loves. “He may be the best musical leading man I’ve ever seen,” Bill remarked after the show. And equally good are the also-hunky Matthew Morrison as Lt. Joe Cable, the young officer who falls in love with a native girl but, like Nellie, succumbs to the racial mores of the time; Danny Burstein adding more than just the usual comic relief as the camp fixer Luther Billis; and the Hawaiian actress Loretta Ables Sayre, as the amusing but also self aware Bloody Mary, the native woman who sells souvenirs and other goods to the sailors.


This is the first time South Pacific has been revived on Broadway since its original production opened nearly 60 years ago but K and I saw a concert version at Carnegie Hall in 2005. That casting seemed perfect—Reba McEntire as Nellie, Brian Stokes Mitchell as Emile and Alec Baldwin as Billis—but we were ultimately disappointed. This time around, though, it was, well, a totally enchanted evening.

13 comments:

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Jan, I'm thrilled that you and Bill enjoyed it as much as I did. It was beautifully and affectionately staged. Thank goodness it's been extended.

Esther said...

I absolutely loved "South Pacific," and I'm so glad you and Bill loved it, too. I've seen the Carnegie Hall concert on DVD, but there's no comparison with seeing it live and fully staged.

I totally agree with everything you wrote. I was smitten from the very beginning! The overture was gorgeous and thrilling, especially when the stage retracted and you could see the musicians. I just wish I'd been sitting down below, instead of in the loge! I loved the way they staged "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair." I also thought that the very moving coda at the end was a wonderful touch. I'm afraid that a lot of people missed it, thinking it was the same quote from James Michener that they saw at the beginning.

This was my first time seeing a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical on stage and I feel like I got the full treatment!

Mondschein said...

I'm also glad to hear how well you liked South Pacific. As I've read and watched coverage of this splendid revival, I keep coming back to the touching portrayal by Kellie O'Hara. I think one moment that has really defined her performance is during "I'm In Love With A Wonderful Guy" where she's nearly in tears of joy as she recognizes her feelings for Emile. Her pure vulnerability in that moment is true theatre magic.

dylan said...

This really was a beautiful show and, yes, that full orchestra ... just wonderful. I was lucky enough to sit on the second row and was able to look right in on the orchestra as they performed that amazing overture. An experience I'll never forget! I think this is going to win the Tony for best revival, but I also think Patti Lupone might deserve the Best Actress Tony just a bit more for her amazing performance in Gypsy.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Great to hear from all of you and how wonderful that we were all so enchanted!

Lani (thedramagirl) said...

I love South Pacific! While most people dwell on the very well knowns (ie: "Wash That Man..."), my favorite is "Nothin' Like A Dame". Bernadette Peters has a simply enchanting recording of this (she was the first female to record it) on her "Bernadette Peters Loves Rodgers & Hammerstein" CD.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Welcome, Lani. Thanks for commenting and for sharing the info about the Bernadette CD. I hope you'll come back to Broadway & Me and comment on other posts too. Cheers, jan

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jan@broadwayandme said...

You'll notice that some comments have been removed. Here’s why:

An anonymous reader made some offensive remarks. I responded with a plea for tolerance. The reader came back with even more vile comments. So, after a lot of thought and some supportive advice from other bloggers I respect and trust, I deleted the entire exchange.

This isn't easy for me to do because I'm a big believer in freedom of speech, which makes it uncomfortable to censor someone—even an obnoxious jerk. But I also don't want to inflict trash talk on the rest of you. So those statements are now gone and future comments to this blog will be monitored. As for the jerk, he or she has the freedom to spew the venom elsewhere.

TaylorSwift said...

As many of theatre lovers I LOVE the musical South Pacific ! It is my favourite ever...I've seen it in New York and next week I’m going to visit my sister and I just got some pretty good tickets via:
http://www.tickethold.com
So I'll be analyzing as well as enjoying the show.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Taylor, thanks for the comment. Hope you and your sister have a great time at the show and feel free to come back and tell us all about it. Cheers, jan