Simply wonderful! Bartlett Sher's masterly reinvention of Rodgers & Hammer stein's "South Pacific" opened at the Vivian Beaumont last night with enough wattage to keep Lincoln Center alight for years.
But before getting on to the marvels of Kelli O'Hara as World War II Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, Paulo Szot as Emile de Becque, the middle-age French planter she loves, Matthew Morrison as doomed Navy flier Lt. Cable and Danny Burstein as that incorrigibly corruptible Seabee, Luther Billis, let's talk of the musical itself.
Curiously, not since its 1949 premiere and its subsequent 1,924 performances has "South Pacific" had a major Broadway revival, even though it may be the finest of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, yielding "Some Enchanted Evening," "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame, "Younger Than Springtime" and more.
The manner in which music and the original James Michener stories unfurl throughout in a mix of comedy, romance and a touch of tragedy is theatrical magic of the most beguiling kind.
Sher has been helped here by Christopher Gatelli's boisterous but unobtrusive choreography, Michael Yeargan's beautiful settings (at the start, the thrust stage rolls back to expose the full and eloquent orchestra) and Catherine Zuber's carefully accurate costumes.
Where Sher and Yeargan have been especially effective is in their sense of period, and, more important, a period filtered through the perspective of history. (Interestingly, although the races are carefully kept apart, the show updates the integration of the US Navy by a couple of decades.) This "South Pacific" is not a faded photograph, but a modern etching.
Except in one delicious respect: O'Hara, who gives a totally different reading from the role's great originator, Mary Martin, offers an uncannily precise re-creation of her "Honey Bun." Charming!
Otherwise, O'Hara delivers Nellie on her own terms and in her own deliquescent persona. If you've never seen a "deliquescent persona" before, that's just another good reason to rush to the Beaumont.
I regret never seeing the great bass Ezio Pinza as Emile, but he was nearly 57 when "South Pacific" opened, even though the text places Emile at 44.
The Brazilian-born Szot is only 38. Also a refugee from opera, he has a splendid voice, fine presence and acts superbly. When this gig is ended, he'll no doubt resume a burgeoning operatic career.
As for the rest, there's not a single weakness - with Burstein offering a magnificent mix of sleaze and heart as Luther, and the excellent Morrison (whose profile resembles James Dean's) leaves a poignant impression as the young airman, Cable.
This is a great staging of a great show, not least for its portrait (now too sadly apt) of young America at war.
Love blossoms fast and early in Bartlett Sher’s rapturous revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” which opened Thursday at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. And while you may think, “But this is so sudden,” you don’t doubt for a second that it’s the real thing.
I’m talking partly about the chemistry between the production’s revelatory stars, Kelli O’Hara and Paulo Szot, in the opening scene of this tale from 1949 of men and women unmoored by war. But I’m also talking about the chemistry between a show and its audience.
For this “South Pacific” recreates the unabashed, unquestioning romance that American theatergoers had with the American book musical in the mid-20th century, before the genre got all self-conscious about itself. There’s not an ounce of we-know-better-now irony in Mr. Sher’s staging. Yet the show feels too vital to be a museum piece, too sensually fluid to be square.
I could feel the people around me leaning in toward the stage, as if it were a source of warmth on a raw, damp day. And that warmth isn’t the synthetic fire of can-do cheer and wholesomeness associated (not always correctly) with Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s the fire of daily life, with all its crosscurrents and ambiguities, underscored and clarified by music.
During the past couple of decades directors have often felt the need to approach the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics with either a can of black paint or misted-up rose-colored glasses. (This has been especially true in London, with the National Theater’s celebrated darkness-plumbing productions of “Carousel” and “Oklahoma!,” and the current sugar-glazed cash-cow of a revival of “The Sound of Music” in the West End.) Mr. Sher, who heralded the return of full-blown lyricism to musicals with his exquisite production of Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’s “Light in the Piazza” several years ago, puts his trust unconditionally in the original material.
It’s as if a vintage photograph had been restored not with fuzzy, hand-colored prettiness but with you-are-there clarity. Though Michael Yeargan’s perspective-stretching beachscape of a set isn’t photo-realist, you somehow accept it as more real than real, just as the score performed by the sumptuously full orchestra (with musical direction by Ted Sperling) feels from the beginning like thought made effortlessly audible.
Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein hits “South Pacific” has in recent years seemed the least fit for revival, despite its glorious score. The show’s book, by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, was inspired by James A. Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific.” Set during World War II on two Pacific islands, where American sailors were stationed, it is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most topical work, addressing a war that had ended only four years earlier.
It is also the show in which the creators wear their liberal consciences most visibly. In following two love stories, both between people of different cultures, “South Pacific” made an overt plea for racial tolerance. Few things in showbiz date more quickly than progressive politics.
It made sense that theater iconoclasts, including the Wooster Group (with its wry spoof “North Atlantic”) and Anne Bogart (with a notorious deconstruction set in a mental ward), would see “South Pacific” as a natural demolition target. Even Trevor Nunn’s generally generic restaging of the show for the National Theater had a gritty, sweaty style that brought out the frightened racism in the show’s heroine.
That’s Ensign Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse from Little Rock whose romance with Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner, runs aground when she learns he had children with a Polynesian woman. The part was created by Mary Martin, playing opposite the opera star Ezio Pinza, and her avowed “cock-eyed optimism” became an emblem for postwar American hope and resilience.
Ms. O’Hara, who played very different incarnations of American womanhood in “Piazza” and the 2006 revival of “The Pajama Game,” doesn’t stint on Nellie’s all-American eagerness. But in a superbly shaded portrait she gives the character a troubled, apprehensive guardedness as well. This self-described hick’s Arkansas accent comes from the country club, not the mountains. And it’s all too easy to imagine her returning to a world of white gloves and cautious good deeds.
Yet Nellie is receptive not just to the serious charms of Emile (the seriously charming Mr. Szot) but to those of the lush landscape in which she finds herself. Ms. O’Hara, whose lovely soprano is never merely lovely here, creates a study in ambivalence that is both subtly layered and popping with energy.
Even when she’s singing that she’s in love with a wonderful guy, she seems to be wrestling with complicated feelings that have surprised her. The same rich sincerity pervades the deep-reaching baritone of Mr. Szot, best known here for his work with the New York City Opera. When he delivers “Some Enchanted Evening” or “This Nearly Was Mine,” it’s not as a swoon-making blockbuster (though of course it is), but as a measured and honest consideration of love.
This reflective aspect infuses every number; nothing is performed as a clap-for-me showstopper. Mr. Sher and Christopher Gattelli, who did the musical staging, have reinvigorated the concept of the organic musical, in which song feels as natural as breathing.
Even crowd-rousers like “Nothin’ Like a Dame,” sung by the chorus of Seabees (led by Danny Burstein, exuberant and infectious as the wily Luther Billis), are made to feel ordinary, as if part of a daily routine. When the entrepreneurial islander Bloody Mary (the Hawaiian actress Loretta Ables Sayre in a terrific New York debut), sings the familiar “Bali Ha’i” and “Happy Talk,” they feel new because they’re rendered as systematic acts of seduction.
You’re always conscious of the calculation in Bloody Mary’s eyes as she tries to secure Lieutenant Cable (Matthew Morrison) as a husband for her daughter, Liat (Li Jun Li, heartbreakingly fragile). Like Ms. O’Hara, Mr. Morrison (who played opposite her in “Piazza”) keeps us aware of just where his Ivy League marine comes from and how disoriented he is in a land of new and shifting rules.
The alluring and divisive shadows and light of the islands are beautifully accented by Mr. Yeargan’s adroit use of slatted screens to define interior spaces that can never entirely shut out the bright world beyond. (The impeccable lighting is by Donald Holder.)
I know we’re not supposed to expect perfection in this imperfect world, but I’m darned if I can find one serious flaw in this production. (Yes, the second act remains weaker than the first, but Mr. Sher almost makes you forget that.) All of the supporting performances, including those of the ensemble, feel precisely individualized, right down to how they wear Catherine Zuber’s carefully researched period costumes.
Notice, by the way, how Mr. Sher implicitly underscores the theme of racism by quietly having the few African-American sailors in the company keep apart from the others. And the production never strains to evoke parallels between the then and now of the United States at war in an alien land.
Above all, though, what impresses about this “South Pacific” is how deeply, fallibly and poignantly human every character seems. Nearly 60 years ago Brooks Atkinson, writing in The New York Times, described the show as “a tenderly beautiful idyll of genuine people inexplicably tossed together in a strange corner of the world.”
I think a lot of us had forgotten that’s what “South Pacific” is really about. In making the past feel unconditionally present, this production restores a glorious gallery of genuine people who were only waiting to be resurrected.
Much has been written recently, and rightfully, about how artists influenced by contemporary pop culture have reinvigorated musical theater. But let's pause for a moment to recognize the pre-modern giants: the composers, lyricists and librettists who gave us shows in which guys and dolls fall in love and break into glorious song and dance — not to be ironic or sensational, but simply because that's where their stories and emotions carry them.
Those stories can pack more complexity and resonance than they get credit for, as we're reminded by Lincoln Center Theater's gorgeous revival of South Pacific (* * * * out of four), which opened Thursday at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.
Like other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, South Pacific transcends sentimentality not only in its portraits of personal relationships, but by putting those relationships in the context of larger, often controversial social issues — in this case, war and racism.
Nellie Forbush, a nurse from Little Rock, is serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II when she meets Emile de Becque, a French expatriate and widower with two half-Polynesian children and a hard-earned wariness of violence.
In this new production — amazingly, the first on Broadway since the 1949 original — director Bartlett Sher and a gifted, great-looking cast fully engage both the challenges faced by these and other characters and the romantic sweep of Rodgers and Hammerstein's ravishing score.
Led by Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot and the increasingly wondrous Kelli O'Hara, the company includes a superb Matthew Morrison as golden-boy lieutenant Joe Cable; a frisky Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary; and two of the most adorable child actors you're likely to ever see, Luka Kain and Laurissa Romain as Emile's little ones.
I doubt there has ever been a nobler or sexier Emile than Szot's. In addition to having the superior vocal power and presence necessary for Some Enchanted Evening and the heartrending This Nearly Was Mine, Szot brings the perfect balance of virility and decency to the role. He also manages a thrilling chemistry with O'Hara, who made her name as a silver-voiced ingénue before stealing the 2006 revival of The Pajama Game from Harry Connick Jr. as a sultry, sassy Babe. Nellie provides another showcase for the luster of O'Hara's lower-to-middle register and the focused intensity and discretion of her singing, which in a better world would be required listening for all American Idol contestants (and for a few Broadway belters).
Nellie is also a meatier part than Babe, and O'Hara beautifully conveys both her confusion and despair over her initial inability to accept Emile's previous biracial marriage and the elation that he inspires in her.
When she kicks up her heels and does cartwheels while performing A Wonderful Guy, O'Hara summons the spiritual buoyancy that makes a certain kind of American musical uniquely transporting.
Such spine-tingling moments ensure that this South Pacific doesn't just float; it soars.
Before Bartlett Sher's staging of "South Pacific" gets under way, an excerpt splashed across a front scrim from James A. Michener's source stories characterizes the writer's time stationed in the region during WWII: "The waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting." It's been almost six decades between the 1949 opening of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic and the show's first Broadway revival, but the Lincoln Center Theater production sure makes the waiting worthwhile. From the seductive swell of a full orchestra playing the glorious five-minute overture through the poignant final tableau of love and reconciliation, this is ravishing theater.
Waiting figures in other ways, too. The keynote to Sher's approach is restraint. Nothing is pushed too hard in this naturalistic presentation, stripped of Broadway bravado, whether it's dramatic scenes, comedy or even the seemingly effortless vocals. (The cast's singing harks back to a time before the virtues of control, subtlety, smoothness and interpretation became secondary in popular music to the now-ubiquitous power surge.) All that quiet restraint serves to make the stealth-like, cumulative emotional power more overwhelming.
Concerns about the show's viability for modern audiences have often centered on Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan's book, with its reflections on the racial divide that predate the civil rights movement. Sher faces that potential hurdle by tackling it without condescension. He treats the drama with integrity and emotional sincerity, so even as we're shocked by the prejudice that threatens to extinguish both the story's dual romances, we're given the insight to know where that inherited intolerance is coming from and not to lose all sympathy for the characters.
This is undeniably a period piece but it's approached here with a serious-minded contemporary sensibility that keeps it relevant. Mixed-race relationships may now be accepted, but as anyone following the presidential contest knows, race itself remains an issue. And questions about the morality of war, the loss of lives and the way America engages with the world inevitably continue to resonate today, perhaps even more than when the show was first seen in the aftermath of WWII.
As he showed in "The Light in the Piazza," Sher is neither coy nor cynical in dealing with romance, and he grounds his treatment of the twin love stories in "South Pacific" in the same truthfulness. Auds familiar with the material only via Logan's lumbering 1958 screen version might be surprised by how thoroughly this production of the dramatic musical avoids any hint of hokey mid-20th century naivety.
That success is due not just to meticulously thought-through directorial choices but to impeccable casting.
Possibly the most accomplished young actress in American musical theater today, Kelli O'Hara's creamy vocals are perfection. She has more innate sophistication than is indicated for "Knucklehead" Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse and self-described hick from Little Rock who falls in love with cultured older French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Paulo Szot). But she has a wholesome openness that helps soften Nellie's dismayed reaction upon discovering Emile has two mixed-race children (endearing tykes Laurissa Romain and Luka Kain). O'Hara clowns or swoons as required, but her characterization has an anchoring sobriety appropriate for a sensitive woman dealing with the gravity of war.
Closer in age to Nellie than past actors in the role, handsome Brazilian operatic baritone Szot is new to musicals and a real find. His initial reserve is in keeping with an emotionally cautious man with a dark past, but he's quickly mellowed by love. The strength of character, quiet masculinity, kindness and mellow intensity Szot brings to the role are all channeled in his velvety voice. His "Some Enchanted Evening" is more measured than the usual impassioned declaration but all the more stirring for it, and his escalating regret in "This Nearly Was Mine" delivers chills.
Matthew Morrison (like O'Hara, a "Piazza" recruit) darkens the innocence of Princeton-educated Lt. Joe Cable a few shades. His cockiness allows him to melt more affectingly when, despite being unable to reconcile their differences, he falls in love with islander beauty Liat (Li Jun Li, enchanting). Again, Sher's tack of holding back to wield greater impact later adds depth to this troubled relationship. In addition to his quiet but rapturous "Younger Than Springtime," Morrison charms in "My Girl Back Home," a wistful throwaway cut prior to the original Broadway bow.
As Liat's mother, island mercenary Bloody Mary, marvelous Hawaiian actress Loretta Ables Sayre also brings ambiguous nuances to a role often played more reductively for comedy, embracing the character's crankiness and corruption without erasing her warmth. Pulling her canoe-cart of native souvenirs like Mother Courage, made-up and costumed like an anime witch, she's a shady figure whose maternal concerns for her daughter are manifested in questionable ways. Her offering of exotic pleasures in "Bali Ha'i," and of love and leisure in "Happy Talk," both have a haunting double edge.
Least complicated of the principal characters is Luther Billis, an opportunistic wise-guy sailor played by Danny Burstein as three stooges in one, with a touch of Bert Lahr. But even Luther has a soul, revealed in his treatment of Nellie and the possibly noble purpose of his stowaway stunt during a maneuver behind enemy lines. The suspense of the military strategy and radio-command scenes here contributes to Sher's steady heightening of the emotional stakes.
The robust 40-member cast is matched by a generous 30-piece orchestra, giving some indication of the significant investment LCT has made to do right by this long-awaited revival. Music director Ted Sperling conducts with a delicate touch and suppleness of tone that highlights Robert Russell Bennett's ageless orchestrations. The incidental music (arranged by Trude Rittmann) is especially pleasing and Scott Lehrer deserves plaudits for a sound mix that allows every note of Richard Rodgers' score -- one of the most lush, tuneful and romantic in American musical history -- and every lyric the same brilliant clarity.
This is not a dance-heavy show, but Christopher Gattelli's musical staging blends seamlessly with Sher's fluid direction of overlapping scenes. The boisterous presentation of the sex-starved sailors' "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" is a high point in comic energy.
However, it's the superb design team's contributions that cannot be overpraised. The level of artistry and inventive stagecraft on display is breathtaking. Catherine Zuber's costumes succinctly define the characters, while Donald Holder's evocative lighting, drenched in cool pastels, works in dazzling unison with Michael Yeargan's sets. These are framed, and at times screened, by wooden blinds that cast arresting shadow effects straight out of '40s Hollywood.
The principal setting of an expanse of sand with a single palm tree atop a dune conjures both paradise and melancholy solitude, undergoing the startling transformation of military occupation when crates, oil drums, a crane and even a plane are rolled in. It seemed unimaginable last season that the vast Beaumont stage would ever again be used to create such majestic pictures as those in "The Coast of Utopia." But this outstanding achievement is at least the equal of that milestone production.