On Tuesday, Broadway Series South kicked off its 2009-10 season with eight crowd-pleasing performances of Lincoln Center Theater’s magnificent 2008 production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Handsomely produced by Bob Boyett, NETworks Presentations et al. and dynamically directed by Bartlett Sher, with fresh and very frisky musical staging by Christopher Gattelli, the show won seven 2008 Tony Awards, including the honors for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Direction of a Musical — plus the 2008 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Musical.
The Lincoln Center Theater’s superlative picture-postcard sets by Michael Yeargan, atmospheric lighting by Donald Holder, cinematic costumes by Catherine Zuber, and evocative sound design by Scott Lehrer — all of whom took home 2008 Tony Awards — combine with the dynamic music direction by Ted Sperling and the high-octane accompaniment of a 26-piece orchestra to put a new polish on this priceless gem of American musical theater, which added “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “Younger Than Springtime,” “Bali Ha’i,” “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” and “A Wonderful Guy” to the show-tune songbook.
But it is the show’s stellar cast of 34, headed by Carmen Cusack as irrepressibly high-spirited U.S. Navy Ensign Nellie Forbush and David Pittsinger as her genial but much-older boyfriend, French expatriate planter Emile de Becque, that make this 60-year-old musical seem younger than springtime. Although at first her faux Southern accent seems a little forced, the vivacious Houston, TX actress is a pip as “Knucklehead Nellie,” a self-proclaimed cockeyed optimist and hick from the sticks of Little Rock, AR.
Pittsinger, whose magnificent bass voice is deeper than the Pacific Ocean, also cuts a handsome figure as the mysterious Emile, whom he twice played in the current, still-running Broadway revival. His duets with Cusack on “Twin Soliloquies” and “Some Enchanted Evening” and his solo versions of “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” are thrilling. Cusack is likewise a crowd-pleaser with her impish interpretations of “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and “(I’m in Love with) A Wonderful Guy.”
Not only does Nellie and Emile’s May-December romance nearly founder on the rocks of racial prejudice, but so does the budding romance of Anderson Davis as U.S. Marine Lt. Joseph Cable and Sumie Maeda as his Tonkinese girlfriend Liat. Although Liat makes Joe feel “Younger Than Springtime,” he cannot buck the racism of his Philadelphia Main Line social set. After Nellie meets Emile’s dark-skinned children (Christina Carrera as Ngana and C.J. Palma as Jerome) by his liaison with a now-dead Polynesian woman, she recoils in horror over what her Little Rock neighbors would whisper behind her back.
Anderson Davis’ retort is a stinging solo of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” Rodgers & Hammerstein’s incendiary indictment of racial prejudice, circa 1949 and (sadly) 2009, too. “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” is one of the show’s highlights, as is Davis’ tender, heartfelt rendition of “Younger Than Springtime.”
Keala Settle and Matthew Saldivar provide considerable comic relief as the island’s two wheeler-dealers: Liat’s mercenary mother Bloody Mary, with her jack-o-lantern grin and roly-poly figure but surprisingly beautiful voice (“Bali Ha’i”), and the always conniving Seabee Luther Billis, who never met an angle that he wouldn’t exploit to make a buck. Rusty Ross as the Professor and original 2008 Broadway revival cast member Genson Blimline as Stewpot also make excellent impressions as Luther’s erstwhile partners in numerous get-rich-quick schemes; and Gerry Becker as Capt. Brackett, a.k.a. “Old Iron Belly,” and Peter Rini as Cmdr. Harbison prove that the island’s naval brass is not without a sense of humor.
Outstanding individual performances, invigorating orchestral accompaniment, imaginative and resourceful musical staging, outstanding production values, and timely message (even in the Age of Obama) make this gala presentation of South Pacific a must for Triangle theatergoers. It would be a cliché to say it is truly some enchanted evening, but it would also be the unvarnished truth.
South Pacific continues through Sunday, November 8th, at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. See our theatre calendar for details.