Reviewed by Judy Richter
There's no doubt that "South Pacific," based on James A. Michener's novel "Tales of the South Pacific," is one of the greatest entries in the American musical theater canon. Premiering on Broadway in 1949, it boasted a score by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, and stage direction by Logan. It went on to win nine Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize and later became a staple of regional community theater. It never was revived on Broadway until Bartlett Sher directed it to seven Tonys for 2008. Now the Lincoln Center Theater production has hit the road and landed in San Francisco.
Set on two South Pacific islands during World War II, most of the action takes place on one island with a Navy Seabee base and Emile de Becque's plantation. The romance between Emile, a Frenchman, and Navy Ensign Nellie Forbush takes center stage, with a secondary romance between Lt. Joseph Cable and a Tonkinese native, Liat (the doll-like Sumie Maeda), daughter of the lusty Bloody Mary.
The show is like a veritable hit parade with such classics as "Some Enchanted Evening," "Bali Ha'i," "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," "A Wonderful Guy," "Younger Than Springtime," "This Nearly Was Mine" and others. It's hard to resist the temptation to hum along. This touring production is notable for outstanding singing by such performers as operatic baritone Rod Gilfry as Emile, Carmen Cusack as Nellie, Keala Settle as Bloody Mary and Anderson Davis as Lt. Cable.
The music is enhanced by Robert Russell Bennett's lush scoring for full orchestra (led by music director Ted Sperling). This production restores some material that was cut from the original or subsequent productions. Thus it has a somewhat darker tone than some versions because it more directly confronts the issue of racism. For example, when Nellie learns that the two dark-skinned children at Emile's plantation are his children by his deceased native wife, her first reaction to the shock is to say, "Colored," then to leave as quickly as possible. Lt. Cable, though clearly enchanted with Liat, says he can't marry her because of what people back home might say.
Although most of the acting is quite good, Cusack's Nellie is a bit problematic, perhaps because Mary Martin in the original production and Mitzi Gaynor in the 1958 film put such a perky stamp on the character. Cusack is cooler and more sophisticated despite Nellie's protestations that she's just a hick from Little Rock, Ark. This Nellie isn't a hick, more like part of the Little Rock country club set or Junior League.
Catherine Zuber's costumes work well for the men and the islanders, but they're too glamorous for Nellie and her fellow nurses, who are stationed on a hot tropical island during a war. The most glaring example comes when the Navy contingent prepares to go off to fight the Japanese, and the nurses go along in their white dress Navy uniforms and high heels. Is that really what they expected to wear when they tended to the wounded? And the women's seamless stockings are an anachronism.
Michael Yeargan's spare set works well for the most part, but the blinds that define some scenes move in the breeze and cast distracting reflections. They also allow patrons in some seats to see people moving in the wings. On the other hand, Donald Holder's lighting helps to create moods, especially impressive for "Bali Ha'i." The sound is by Scott Lehrer. The musical staging is by Christopher Gattelli.
Despite some quibbles with the costumes and set, this production succeeds because of the music and the book. And though both may be familiar to many patrons, the opening night audience was filled with young people who may have been getting their first taste of this type of beauty. One hopes it whets their appetite for more.