Editors' pick

South Pacific


Editorial Review

David Pittsinger, Carmen Cusack shine in 'South Pacific' at Kennedy Center

By Peter Marks
Thursday, December 16, 2010

Few things in life sound better than "South Pacific." And few "South Pacifics" have sounded as good as the deeply pleasurable revival bivouacked in the Kennedy Center Opera House for the holidays.

Oh, an over-amplification issue arises during "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" and some of the comic moments, minted way back in 1949 by book writers Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, land with a louder thud than ever. But wait until you hear the gorgeous "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine" as sung by bass-baritone David Pittsinger, who portrays Emile de Becque, the smooth French wooer of the cockeyed American optimist, Ensign Nellie Forbush.

That quadruple bassoon of a voice interpreting the Richard Rodgers melodies - among the most melting ever composed for the theater - is all the seduction that you or Nellie need. Somehow, the effortlessness of Pittsinger's technique helps in the illusion that the great romance at the core of "South Pacific" truly is operatic in scope.

The 26-piece orchestra conducted by Lawrence Goldberg doesn't hurt, either. And as a further enjoyable anchor, this touring "South Pacific," directed as it was in its Tony-winning incarnation at the Lincoln Center Theater by Bartlett Sher, features a delightful Nellie in the person of Carmen Cusack. With a first-rate voice and charmingly down-to-earth take on the show's pivotal character, Cusack offers a moving portrait of the slow breakup of Nellie's provincial mind-set.

These strong fundamentals ensure that Sher's "South Pacific" remains as close to a definitive revival of the show as audiences are likely to encounter. And with Arena Stage's intimate, endearingly entertaining "Oklahoma!," theatergoers in Washington can score an unusual, special double dose of the best that Rodgers and Hammerstein can be.

Thematically, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "South Pacific," unveiled on Broadway six years after "Oklahoma!," took the songwriting team on a rarer route for musical drama, into the realm of the conscience. Its setting is a South Seas naval installation during World War II, but its subject is race. The musical's love stories both concern sensitive American military people thwarted by their prejudices: Arkansas-bred Nellie can't deal with Emile's previous marriage to a Polynesian woman, a union that produced two dark-skinned children. And dashing Marine Lt. Cable (the mellifluous Anderson Davis) is unable to envision life with the island girl he loves, Sumie Maeda's Liat, as a relationship that would pass muster back home on the Philadelphia Main Line.

Hammerstein had explored elements of this hot-button issue in the '20s when he collaborated with Jerome Kern on "Show Boat," among whose characters is a light-skinned mixed-race woman masquerading as white. In "South Pacific," the concern takes on even more importance, and ultimately, a tone bordering on outright preachiness, in Lt. Cable's tuneful second-act sermon, "You've Got to be Carefully Taught."

The song's self-righteousness dates the show a bit; it would be irritating if it weren't so pretty. (The devilish "Avenue Q" cheekily echoed "South Pacific" a half-century later, in the satirical number "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist.") As for the musical's other antique qualities, we're not even going to get into the slightly creepy circumstances of Cable's liaison with gentle, younger-than-springtime Liat, arranged by her vulturous mother, the trinket peddler Bloody Mary.

Still, Jodi Kimura is aces as Mary, asserting herself puckishly and mangling English with the shameless disregard of a woman interested only in closing a sale. And the sailors, Seabees and Navy women are embodied by a robust ensemble, led by Timothy Gulan's convincingly conniving Luther Billis.

The Opera House, it must be noted, is not the most accommodating venue for this show; Michael Yeargan's Tony-winning set has lost some of the cinematic scale it conveyed in the Vivian Beaumont Theater, with its expansive thrust stage. The physical production, which retains the beachfront military base and a majestic, changing Pacific sky, is impressive but no longer breathtaking.

We're deprived here, too, of one of the revival's goose-bump sequences: In the Beaumont, the roof of the orchestra pit retracted during the overture to reveal a stunning complement of 30 musicians.

That amazing overture just as capably induces swoons in the Kennedy Center. If anything, your admiration for the score increases on this occasion; there isn't a perfunctory musical moment all evening. (And with two reprises, you get all of the "Some Enchanted Evening" that you crave.) Davis's rendition of "My Girl Back Home," Cusack's "A Wonderful Guy" and Kimura's "Happy Talk" are some of the highlights of a production that will leave you humming show tunes in your sleep.

The score's emotionality levitates the central love story; it supports the characters all the way through to those tender final notes of "Dites-Moi." When Nellie reaches one last time for Emile's hand, you can't help but feel it reaching out to yours, too.

South Pacific music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Musical staging, Christopher Gattelli; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Scott Lehrer; music direction, Ted Sperling. With Rusty Ross, Genson Blimline, Christina Carrera, CJ Palma. About three hours.