This year's hottest TONY competition may be for best musical revival. A leading contender is the stunning production of South Pacific being mounted at Lincoln Center. It's not that this production offers a radically original or innovative interpretation, but simply that it's an intelligent rendering of a solid standard, delivered by a skilled and well-matched ensemble. That doesn't sound like a rave-but it is.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's tale itself isn't particularly timely, except that the plea for tolerance always seems to be of the moment. Nellie Forbush (Kelli O'Hara ), a bright young nurse from Little Rock, stationed on an island in the South Pacific during World War II, and Emile de Becque (Paolo Szot) a French planter several decades her senior are tentatively embarking on a romance, while the restless sailors also serving buy trinkets from local Bloody Mary (Loretta Ables Sayre) and plot ways to get across the water to the enchantments of Bali Hai. When a young Marine lieutenant (Matthew Morrison) appears on a secret mission, he seems to be the answer to several characters' prayers: Sailor Luther Billis (Danny Burstein) wants to use his officer ranking to get to Bali Hai, Bloody Mary wants him to marry her daughter, and the Navy wants to send him to spy on the Japanese - but they need Emile's help, and Emile is too busy pursuing Nellie - until she finds out something about his past that makes her call off their fast-blooming relationship.
Nearly every song in South Pacific is a standard, but Kelli O'Hara is a pert, charming Nellie Forbush, who actually manages to make Nellie's southern drawl work with her lilting soprano - and to be a cock-eyed optimist without being irritating. Meanwhile opera transfer Paolo Szot is a dashing Emile, whose dramatic baritone and comic charm more than make up for the fact that he's a little young for the role. O'Hara, who seems to do well matched with non-traditional singers (remember Harry Connick, Jr., in last season's The Pajama Game), achieves a rare chemistry with Szot, and a charismatic and well-used supporting cast are each allowed their moments - and stunning musical turns - in the sun, particularly Burstein as the entrepreneurial sailor and Ables Sayre as the opportunist saleswoman with hidden depths. Director Bartlett Sher lets each of these stellar performers shine, and in so doing, sheds a purer light on an old classic.