“I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms waving gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into a spray, and lagoons, lovely beyond description . . .” These words on an aging curtain fill the proscenium, as if typed by James A. Michener soon after World War II ended for what became his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Tales of the South Pacific.
The collection of short stories based upon his experiences as a U.S. Navy commander and selected anecdotes was published in 1946, won a Pulitzer in 1948, and the Rogers & Hammerstein musical opened on Broadway in April 1949.
The South Pacific playing at the Bushnell now through April 25, is the National Tour of the Lincoln Center’s multi-praised revival, and is virtually the same production which in 2008 won seven Tony ® awards. A Houston Chronicle review states: “Superbly sung and powerfully acted, the touring cast of the magnificent Lincoln Center Theater restoration of South Pacific is the equal of the New York team.” Although I did not see the NYC production, based upon what I saw here in Hartford, I’m comfortable agreeing with Houston’s assessment.
The casting of the principals deserves special praise. As the romantic French planter, Emile de Becque, Grammy-nominated baritone Rod Gilfry could sell tickets singing the names in a phone book. Thanks to the resonance, timbre, passion and longing in his voice, Ensign Nellie Forbush doesn’t stand a chance. As played – and sung – to perfection by Carmen Cusack, her cockeyed optimism delights and enchants.
Matthew Saldivar’s Luther Billis, a combination of Seabee entrepreneur and concierge delivers balanced recklessness and compassion while delivering the goods as a song and dance go-to guy. As expected, Keala Settle’s Bloody Mary is a crowd-pleaser – solidly outrageous in her characterization – and blessed with a fabulous voice. The war-weary Lt. Joseph Cable (well played by Anderson Davis – another top-drawer voice) sings “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” with a frustrated insistence that hopefully rattles bigots’ cages.
Among the many reasons to praise this lush production is the attention to the dramatic vistas of the sea and sky and the changes they reflect depending upon the time of day – or night. No wonder lighting by Donald Holder won a Tony. Sometimes the horizon blurs; sometimes its razor sharp.
When the military personnel put on a show, a Thanksgiving Follies, the skills of Director Bartlett Sher and Dance and Incidental Music Arrangements by Trude Rittmann and the professional actors (nurses and Seabees’) shine in a finished product that deliberately mimics an amateurish variety show.
Audiences cannot get enough of South Pacific. Loaded with some of the best ballads and show music ever, a fixed venue for the revival is holding court at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in NYC.
The accolades that showered the Lincoln Center production are winning new admirers who appreciate intriguing love stories, the suspense of wartime heroics, and the antics of guys who’ve not had a date in months, possibly years (There Is Nothing’ Like a Dame), and a confused love-sick nurse who vows I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair, and a character who chews up the scenery with her stained teeth while singing a spiritual salute to the mysterious Bali Ha’i.
You lak? You’ll lak.