Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Theater review: Don't miss 'South Pacific' at Kravis

Keala Settle is Bloody Mary in South Pacific.
(Photo by Peter Coombs)

By Hap Erstein

I’ve got a confession to make: I never really cared for South Pacific.

Sure, the songs are terrific, but the script always struck me as pokey and about three-quarters of the way through the second act, it grinds to a halt with a series of scenes where the action is all offstage and we only hear about it through radio dispatches.

But then I had never seen a first-class production until a couple of years ago. After all, of all the musicals of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, which get revived like clockwork, South Pacific had never been back on Broadway since its original 1949 production.

My opinion of the show was based on a so-so dinner theater attempt, a big, inert production at Wolf Trap Farm Park near Washington starring Robert Goulet that was well-sung but dramatically unpersuasive, and the 1958 movie version with Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi that Forbidden Broadway aptly spoofed with the song Blurry Hues (to the tune of Bali Ha’i).

Still, two seasons ago in New York, the hot ticket was the Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of South Pacific. So I went and I was blown away by it, completely captivated by the star-crossed romances of Little Rock “hick” Navy nurse Nellie Forbush and enigmatic French plantation owner Emile de Becque, as well as Main Line Philadelphian Joe Cable, a WASPy Marine lieutenant and his Polynesian squeeze, Liat.

Even harder to believe, director Bartlett Sher (Light in the Piazza) made the wartime combat subplot come crisply to life, not by whittling away at the clunky book scenes, but by adding to them.

And it looked superb on the vast Vivian Beaumont stage, a performance space that was long considered problematic at best. Furthermore, mainly to show off contemporary theater hydraulics and to showcase his huge, pre-’50s-sized orchestra, Sher would periodically slide back the stage floor to reveal the gaggle of musicians happily playing away in the pit.

Predictably, the mobile stage has not made it onto the road, but otherwise the glory of this reverential, but hardly museum-like, revival has arrived at the Kravis Center with its theatrical power very much intact. Hammerstein and the show’s original director, Joshua Logan, co-adapted stories from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, fitting them tidily into the double romance format of so many Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. But in the right hands, it does not feel formulaic.

This production has no recognizable names, but it is exceptionally well-cast. Carmen Cusack, who has been toiling for the past two years in green makeup in various companies of Wicked, is a sublime “knucklehead” Nellie, vocally very reminiscent of Mary Martin, who originated the role. As is the tradition, Emile comes from the world of opera, but Jason Howard has the acting chops -- as well as the lung power -- to embody the character completely.

Visually, the show looks a bit cramped, but only if you have seen it sprawl across the Beaumont space. Michael Yeargan’s tropical scenic design still impresses and you will love the way Donald Holder’s lighting hits the backdrop and Bali Ha’i magically appears out of the mist and clouds.

I will still take Carousel as the pinnacle of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. (Give me a good old domestic-abuse musical any day, I guess.) But I finally get it about South Pacific, and you will regret it if you do not see this production this week.

(Editor's note: This posting has been updated to correct the photo.)

SOUTH PACIFIC. Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Continuing through Sunday, Jan. 10. Tickets: $30-$80. Call: (561) 832-7469 or (800) 572-8471.

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