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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
SOUTH PACIFIC
at the Vivian Beaumont (Lincoln Center)

HAPPY TALK
By MARK N. GRANT

  Kelli O’Hara as Ensign Nellie Forbush

In his 1980 coffeetable book Broadway Musicals Martin Gottfried wrote that South Pacific was unrevivable. Nonsense, it was just waiting for the right revival. The 1958 film and the 2001 television film with Glenn Close didn't do justice to the material, and those of us under 65 have been nursing nostalgia not for the 1949-1954 original run but for the original cast recording, which in some ways distorts the experience of the show (e.g., inventing a grandiose vocal finale that is at odds with the understated but powerful spoken ending of the stage version). So generations have never known what a consummate piece of theatre South Pacific really is-until this production.

The depth and complexity of its characters hits you as a surprise. Heard live in their original plot context, Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics take on an extra dimension of illustrative power we hadn't properly appreciated before. There's a caustic undertow to the sentimental optimism-even a savage irony. (All the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows have dark subtexts the notion that they are merely cloying and sentimental is a crock.) The racism (circa its era - Gentlemen's Agreement days) is served up raw. What's dated about that? Is every piece of dramatic literature supposed to meet a market research focus group view of what's contemporary in order to be adjudged living theater? South Pacific packs as much of a sock as Ghosts or A Doll's House.

Some reviewers have criticized Kelli O'Hara for lacking spark as Nellie Forbush. Let's recall what Brooks Atkinson wrote about Mary Martin the day after the show opened, April 8, 1949:There seems to be a little of Annie Oakley, the gun-girl, left in Miss Martin's attack on a song, and perhaps this should be exorcised by slow degrees. For this Navy nurse is a few cuts above Annie socially. Miss Martin is the girl who can make her captivating without deluging her in charm." I revere Mary Martin as a performer, but Ms. O'Hara's performance of Nellie as a white-gloved Arkansan is a revelation, a wonder-work of sensitive acting, inner behavior, and fresh rethinking that kept me totally in her thrall. Likewise Paulo Szot as Emile de Becque: his singing has both beauty and virile authority, and he is not merely a credible actor but a highly skilled one. Never for a moment did I feel he was too young for the part. Szot's impassioned This Nearly Was Mine literally stops the show, because it is as well acted as sung, not because he plays to show-stop.

Director Bartlett Sher (assisted in musical staging by Christopher Gattelli) has reconstructed the cinematic flow of Joshua Logan's original staging with his own interpretive touches (in the original Pinza and Martin sometimes sang cheek to cheek-the leads here never do). Although the show's pace at times seems to move almost too matter-of-fact-ly (that can't have been Joshua Logan's style), the effect is a back-in-time 1940s naturalism that carries its own quiet punch. Matthew Morrison plays the arrogant flyboy Lt. Cable convincingly as a kind of WASP/Mainline John Garfield. Against the grain of this naturalism is Danny Burstein, who plays Luther Billis like the Ritz Brothers -his and the ensemble's There is Nothing Like a Dame lacks the requisite testosterone and cojones 1949 eyewitnesses recall from Myron McCormick and company. Michael Yeargan has recreated Jo Mielziner-style backdrops, including the peekaboo Bali Ha'i scrim.

The production restores the original Russell Bennett 30-piece orchestration, including that essential richness of 14 strings (many recent revivals have been reorchestrated for a total pit band of 15). Musical direc

 


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