Romance and realism can make entertaining bedfellows. What could be more entrancing than to watch two realistically depicted people fall deeply and believably in love on stage? Getting to watch them do so as they sing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s melodic, romantic songs with impeccable vocal styling, talent and a gorgeous production enveloping them evokes euphoric thrill.
Given Rodgers and Hammerstein’s extensive output of romantic musicals and the stilted, cliché-ridden staging their works often endure, it’s easy to forget the true artistry in their creative collaborations. The Lexus Broadway Series presents the Lincoln Center Theater’s production of the duo’s 1949 classic South Pacific as their opening selection at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House and delivers a fresh, vibrant performance that wins the audience’s hearts from the moment the leads Nellie and Emile exchange first love-struck glances.
Not one iota of diva mindset “don’t touch me, muss my costume and make-up, or get in my light” body language emanates from anyone on stage in this production. Leads to ensemble, they are all beautiful and engaging and cut exquisitely romantic pictures, whether in WWII uniforms, evening attire, period swimming suits or even (briefly) less. All performers exist vibrantly in the moment, whether wooing a potential sweetheart, dancing in a USO-style girlie revue, lounging about the island’s “seashore” or atop the WWII fighter plane that rolls onstage in Act I to the audience’s amazement and delight. Dreamy, dazzling, pure stage magic.
This production’s Nellie, Carmen Cusack, wraps the audience around her little finger as soon as she steps onstage and launches into “A Cock-Eyed Optimist”, with definite hint of Patsy Cline-like country twang and infectious spirit of genuine fun. After all, Ensign Nellie Forbush hails from down-home Little Rock and describes herself as a ‘hick.’ Houston native Cusack is an international singing artist with major cast recordings and leads in national tours of Phantom of the Opera and Wicked under her trim, girlish belt; her fluid, clear voice could melt icebergs and her sincere charm drive many an admirer to fantastic escapist dreams of island romance. Matching Cusack in every aspect is the ebullient, glamorous, dashing Jason Howard, performing as Emile de Becque in this US tour with support from UK Equity. Howard conveys an old-fashioned chivalry and mature elegance in his demeanor while matching any 2009 Romeo in youthful vigor and earnestness while pursuing love and arguing for tolerance of mixed race relationship. Who wouldn’t want a modern-minded lover with the manners and panache of a free spirited entrepreneur from the “greatest generation” era? Howard’s characterization blends the classic and modern with every gracious movement and word he utters. And when the man sings? His confident, resplendent baritone soars out through the multiple levels of the gorgeous, new performance space, a superb test case for the Winspear’s resonant acoustics. In addition to singing opera and musical theatre from Strasbourg to Seattle, Howard has recorded a personal solo tribute album to Gordon MacRae and Howard Keel. Seize the opportunity to appreciate his rare vocal talents and his defining portrayal of a Rodgers and Hammerstein iconic romantic lead.
Providing relentless, zany comic relief and a surprisingly caring workingman’s perspective is the inventive, expressive, physically fearless Matthew Saldivar as mischievous, scheming Luther Billis. An MFA graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Saldivar has originated major classical and modern roles on and off Broadway. Whether leading the chorus of singing/dancing Seabees in ”There is Nothing Like A Dame” or dancing over the top drag in the Act II high-energy romp ”Honey Bun” with Nellie, Saldivar informs his role with hilarious vigor and spot-on professional comic timing.
Offering a satisfying performance with a powerful, youthful tenor voice in contrast to Jason Howard’s mature baritone, Anderson Davis makes a handsome, thoughtful junior romantic lead as Lt. Joseph Cable, physically fit but not narcissistic and steroid-pumped. Davis’ Cable evolves believably from a cocky Princeton-educated snob to the conscience of the play, as an advocate for racial tolerance.
His passionate response in the courting scenes with the young Polynesian girl Liat (Sumie Maeda) seems to take him by surprise and reveals his growing awareness of the common bonds of humanity. Rodgers and Hammerstein took a risk here in bringing racial tolerance to the forefront in 1949. A politically relevant musical may have seemed disgraceful, out of place, at the time. Davis’ Cable gives the tolerance issue prominent dignity and makes his point in “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” without diminishing the play’s dominant romantic themes. Keala Settle’s physical energy and presence as the bold temptress, roustabout and camp huckster Bloody Mary fit her role excellently, although her rich, dark voice seems occasionally muffled in her microphone, making her words, sung or spoken, indistinct.
This South Pacific possesses a gutsy sensuality and abandon, reveals a willingness to risk all for higher purpose, whether that purpose be true love or love of country and freedom from tyranny and repression. The people living on the island setting are isolated and close to siege and imminent destruction from the enemy Japanese nearby. The consistency of these themes in set design, revealing period costumes (not always flattering), technically complicated moments, musical abandon within classically correct delivery and honest romantic exchanges reflect and reinforce a conscious artistic decision on show director Bartlett Sher ‘s part. He positions what is often considered a dated nostalgia piece into a fresh context able to connect well with modern sensibility and tastes. All design artists, Catherine Zuber with costume, Donald Holder with lighting, Scott Lehrer with sound, Michael Yeargan with set and Ted Sperling with musical direction, share in the well-knit success of this absolutely entrancing production.
Watching this South Pacific feels like peering down a time-warp telescope into the lives of real people in 1949. James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific inspired the show’s book, by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan. Most politically aware of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s shows, the musical portrays the everyday lives and loves of soldiers and civilians on two remote Pacific islands during WWII, when things weren’t going so well for the Allies. Instead of glorifying or demonizing he impact of war on people’s lives, the musical depicts its effects on an intimate human scale. Humans are dominated by nature and larger than life events in the colorful, provocative set design by Michael Yeargan. The painted sky as massive upstage backdrop filling the back wall which flows effortlessly from sunset to clear blue mid-day to darkening clouds, the fighter plane poised waiting to fly into battle stage right, the massive drop down map of the Pacific “Theater” dominating the “war room”– all effectively reinforce the pitiful smallness of human existence while allowing its participants to find true meaning in everyday relationship. The audience shares vicariously, hungrily, in this connective experience.
One technical issue: several audience members seated in the center orchestra section mentioned they were distracted seeing cast members entering and exiting the set from both sides during major scenes and wished sight lines had been better reviewed and entrances masked off. I had no such problem seated stage left.
Brooks Atkinson, writing in The New York Times over half a century ago, described the original production of South Pacific as “a tenderly beautiful idyll of genuine people inexplicably tossed together in a strange corner of the world.” He could be describing this Lincoln Center Theater production. If superior art educates and illuminates as well as entertains, Lincoln Center Theater’s production of South Pacific as performed at the Winspear earns superior marks on every artistic level. And it makes it oh so easy to fall in love.
Photos: Peter Coombs
Sumie Maeda as Liat; Anderson Davis as Lt. Cable