Wednesday, February 02, 2011

South Pacific

Disappointing, emotionally static SOUTH PACIFIC at Palace

When I heard that the Tony Award winning revival of SOUTH PACIFIC was part of Cleveland's Broadway Series, I was overjoyed. Unfortunately, the opening night production was a let down. It was uninspiring and emotionally flat.

Maybe it was the cold and icy weather outside, but it was probably more likely Director Bartlett Sher's emotionally controlled interpretation and some rigid acting. Now, don't get me wrong, the music, as played by the large well-tuned orchestra was glorious, the singing voices were full and well nuanced, and the mutli-leveled story line was there. Unfortunately, the interpretation didn't play on the dual level of serious problems (a war and prejudice) and the humorous underbelly, mainly stressing the former and forsaking the latter.

SOUTH PACIFIC is Rogers and Hammerstein's interpretation of James Michener's Pulitzer Prize winning book, TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC. The musical, which opened in 1949, is considered by many to be one of the great American musicals. It was a box office hit, running nearly 2000 performances, and then went on to be a beloved film. The original Broadway cast included Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. This, the Lincoln Center Theater production, is a reworking of the original script.

The story takes place on a South Pacific island during World War II and centers on Nellie, a young Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, who becomes romantically involved with Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner who has fathered two mixed-race children. Lieutenant Joe Cable arrives with the intent of conducting a dangerous spy mission which is crucial to the outcome of the war. He wants de Becque to accompany him to neighboring island which will allow for spying on the Japanese. A side plot develops when Cable falls in love with Liat, a young Polynesian girl. Unfortunately, both Nellie and Cable become the victims of their own prejudices. Cable and de Becque go off on their mission, and, as happens in musicals, there is a seemingly happy ending, at least for several of the characters.

A plot device of many musicals of the 1950-era was dual story lines. A serious one…think Billy and Julie in CAROUSEL; and a humorous duo…Carrie and Enoch Snow in the same show. In SOUTH PACIFIC we have Nellie and Emile as the main story line characters and Bloody Mary, a resident of Bali Ha'I, a near-by island, who plots to make money, and Luther Billis, a wheeler dealer Navy seabee, who goes through life joyously getting in trouble because of his many schemes, as the humorous duo.

As is the habit of Rogers and Hammerstein, there is an underlying social message, which is developed both in the storyline and a key song. In this case, prejudice and its cause, are explained in You Have to be Carefully Taught. Other highlight songs are the glorious Some Enchanted Evening, the beautiful Bali Ha'i. the lovely Younger Than Springtime, and the poignant That Nearly Was Mine all of which move the serious side of the plot along; while, There is Nothin' Like a Dame, Happy Talk and Honey Bun are intended to add humor.

David Pittsinger (Emile) has a glorious voice. On the other hand, he is rigid as an actor, often glowering, making it hard to believe that he has any real emotional attachment to Nellie. In their duo scenes there is a void of connection. Carmen Cusack, who sings beautifully, lacks the cockeyed optimist attitude that is supposed to be Nellie. She misses the fun and naivety that is used to describe the character in song and spoken words. She is severe in facial expression, hair style, body movement and mannerisms.

Anderson Davis (Cable), sings well. It's too bad that he couldn't show some textured feelings. The closest either Davis and Cusack come to being natural is in their duet, My Girl Back Home, which was not in the original Broadway production, but was added to the score for the movie and added to the revival script.

Jodi Kimura delights as Bloody Mary, Sumie Maeda is a lovely Liat, Timothy Gulan tries to be Billis, but he just doesn't have enough fun with the role. For example, his Honey Bun didn't have the needed joyousness.

Much of the stage movement and choreography almost seemed like move-by-numbers. Like robots, the cast knew where to go, moved there automatically, did their thing, and moved on to their next stage position. There was a feigning of, not real spontaneity, especially in There is Nothing Like a Dame and I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.

The audience's reaction probably best describes the production. The mandatory Cleveland standing ovation lacked enthusiasm. People stood haltingly, applauded politely, and didn't shout the usual bravos that bring closure to almost every Broadway series offering, whether deserved or not.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Unfortunately, the touring production of SOUTH PACIFIC didn't live up to its advance building. It's a shame. In the midst of this terrible winter, and the collapse of our professional athletic teams, we needed something to cheer and get excited about.