Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Surprising Sojourn in the “South Pacific”

“South Pacific” has never been one of my favorite Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. I played the role of Luther Billis in my High School production, which was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it was the only comedic role in the show. And a curse, because after the show was over I was forever after referred to as “Coconuts” by many of my friends’ parents. A nickname I earned solely because of the coconut bra I had to wear during the “Honey Bun” number in Act Two. A little humiliating to say the least, though it’s certainly not why the show has never held much interest for me.

As a teenager, I found the wafer thin plotlines and ballad-laden love story a bit boring. Except for “There is Nothing Like a Dame” and “Bloody Mary,” there weren’t a lot of rousing numbers in the show. Plus, the boy and girl who played the leads in our show took their roles a little too seriously, which caused much nausea and irritation among the rest of the cast members. (Particularly the female chorus members, who couldn’t wait for our Nellie Forbush to break her leg or lose her voice so one of them could go on in her place. Oh yes, they were ruthless in my High School.)

Anyway, I went to see the new Broadway production of “South Pacific” with little or no anticipation. The tickets had been given to me as a gift, so I was merely fulfilling my obligation to use them, rather than gearing myself up for an entertaining evening at the theater. But what I witnessed at the Vivian Beaumont Theater was a beautifully mounted and executed production, perfectly cast and thoroughly entertaining to watch. The production gives the show one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen, as dialogue and lyrics meld together to form a cohesive language. The actors don’t stop to sing a song; the song comes naturally out of what they’re saying. To me, that gives the musical so much life and reality, that you forget the transition from speaking to singing. One flows into the other like a natural extension of their vocal abilities.

Kelli O’Hara was a great choice for Nellie Forbush, as she brings an awkward geekiness to the role, which is thoroughly charming. Her songs are pitch perfect, and appear to flow out of her with little effort or strain. As Nellie’s love interest, Paulo Szot was a brilliant choice for Emile de Becque. Coming from an operatic background, Mr. Szot’s rich voice is a well-tuned instrument. His reprise of “Some Enchanted Evening” at the end of Act One is sure to send shivers up and down your spine. Danny Burstein was also good as Billis, though his voice and mannerisms began to remind me of a young Bert Lahr. At any moment, I half expected him to break out in “If I Was King of the Forest” from “The Wizard of Oz."

The rest of the cast were equally good in their roles, and the production values are top notch. And though the show’s intertwining stories might seem a little bland for today’s tastes, you are not likely to see a more beautifully staged and executed production on Broadway anytime soon. (Especially since this is only the second time the show has ever been mounted on the Great White Way.) So in conclusion, the trip to the construction-challenged Lincoln Center was well worth it, as it turned out to be One Enchanted Evening.

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