Sunday, April 5, 2009

Theater Review: South Pacific

With Ted Sperling conducting, the thirty-piece orchestra at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont gives the overture to South Pacific a dynamic, radiant performance that sets the benchmark for an enjoyable evening. Theatergoers have waited almost six decades for the opportunity to see the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic on a Broadway stage again. And veteran playgoers who remember the 1949 production (as I do), as well as those who are seeing the show for the first time, should agree that a classic has found evident, gripping new life.

When the familiar and inviting musical prelude ends, Donald Holder’s lush lighting design reveals Michael Yeargan’s splendid setting: a seemingly endless stretch of sand with only one palm tree placed on top of a solitary dune. With the addition of moveable pieces, the action takes place in a plantation house, in a commander’s office, on a beach, inside a hut, on a terrace and on an improvised stage. And we’re always aware here of Catherine Zuber’s colorful, flattering period costumes.

Ensign Nellie Forbush (Kelli O’Hara) is a Navy nurse, a hick from Little Rock, who is in love with a French plantation owner, Emile de Becque (Paulo Szot). She appears, at first, to be the stranger he sees “across a crowded room.” However, when Nellie, a “cockeyed optimist,” discovers that De Becque had two children with a Polynesian woman, her subliminal attitudes about race become apparent. And in a parallel tale, on another part of the island, a materialistic Polynesian, Bloody Mary* (Laretta Ables Sayre), tries to convince Lt. Cable (Matthew Morrison) to marry her young daughter, Liat (Li Jun Li). The problem here is that the Princeton-educated marine feels that Liat would not be welcome on Philadelphia’s Main Line. He sings, “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/Of people whose skin is a different shade.../You’ve got to be carefully taught.” Racial prejudice is also subtly exhibited here when you notice that the few African-American sailors on stage do not mingle with the other servicemen. But when Joshua Logan and Oscar Hammerstein wrote the book for the show, they could not have known that race would be a significant issue in a presidential race almost six decades later.

The chorus numbers, which were all staged by Christopher Gattelli, are rousing. When, for example, Nellie and the nurses sing about washing “that man right outa my hair” or being “in love with a wonderful guy,” the show radiates with striking vitality. And when Danny Burstein (as Luther Billis) leads the sailors in “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” he sings, dances and cavorts about the stage with such enthusiasm that we cheer both his virtuosity and his willingness to please. The kinetic excitement here becomes contagious. In fact, all of the performances are commendable; and, under the fluid direction of Bartlett Sher, these actors make the Vivian Beaumont an enchanting place to spend three hours.

*One of the roles New Hope’s Odette Myrtil performed on Broadway.