South Pacific

Directed by Bartlett Sher
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, based on Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener
Starring Kelli O’Hara and Paulo Szot
Lincoln Center Theater, Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street
production web site:
April 3, 2008 – August 22, 2010 (announced closing)

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
August 15, 2010

“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…. but whenever I start to talk about the South Pacific, people intervene.”

Initial moments in the Vivian Beaumont, as we find and settle into our seats, warm my dramaturg’s heart.  A scrim several stories high serves as an on-stage wall board on which we see introductory paragraphs, as if draft typescript from the original, initial words typed by James Michener.  (This same scrim offers other words at other points but primarily throughout the course of the play’s action a useful map of the South Pacific islands referenced and theatre of war at different moments of the production.)  We are oriented in time, in place, in history.

Michener refers not to family members interrupting his writing sessions, but the people who populate his memories, forcing a focus on the characters rather than historical facts.  Exquisite.  And this production of the 1949 musical based on those stories gives voice to the human beings — the people in the stories, the people in the play’s book, the people of the songs, and at sweet fleeting moments, past performers with evocative iconic moments from the past.

Martin as Forbush 1949

The production sneaks up on you.  The impact of the performances is cumulative.  Director Bartlett Sher, a full orchestra under the direction of Ted Sperling, a massive dancing and singing choruses of men and woman all deliver this familiar score with charm and familiarity at one moment, and surprises at others.  “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame” delivered in bellows and snide asides by the lovelorn, lovesick Seabees is adorable and attractive as only a sexist but charming big production number can be.  Our doughy Billis charms, played with sweet bluster and final touching nuance by Danny Burstein.  “Bali Ha’i” is delicate and luscious and dreamy and delightful delivered by Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary.  Only Andrew Samonsky as Lt. Cable delivers a wooden performance — even when delivering “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”.

O’Hara as Forbush

Kelli O’Hara gives us a Nellie Forbush of the 1940s, seamlessly embodied in a 21st-century performer’s strengths.  Her vocals are often delightfully low key and heartfelt rather than bawdy and belting as other Nellie Forbush performances we all have seen.  O’Hara has made this role her own.  Paulo Szot as middle-aged Emile de Becque moves you through the baritone stilted moments to something new altogether.  And if he hasn’t gotten to you before this moment, he cements his accolades with his portion of a medley deep in the Second Act with young Lt. Cable.  First young Cable bemoans his own prejudices while not moving beyond them to marry the Tonkinese young woman he loves (“Carefully Taught”).  De Becque follows that sentiment, blasting through blame and social recriminations and refocusing on the human core — through his own pain and love lost and love thwarted — with “This Nearly Was Mine”.  In this way he reframes for the young man and for all of us that the key issue is love and connection. Stunning.  I well up a bit again with the recollection.

It was a privilege to see these storied performances at this point late in the two year run of this show.  O’Hara and Szot returned to the production for the last weeks, in part to be present for the “Live from Lincoln Center” broadcast scheduled for Wednesday this week.  With productions like this, with full lush orchestrations and a full complement of live musicians (yes yes yes it sounds and feels different with them, we need them all!), one can indulge in a little faith that the American musical is in good hands.

© Martha Wade Steketee (August 16, 2010)

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