Sunday, March 21, 2010

Review: "South Pacific"

The names Rogers and Hammerstein are synonymous with classic musical theater. This duo composed and produced some of the greatest American musicals of the 20th century, including Carousel, Oklahoma, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. But their masterpiece, winner of the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (one of a very few musicals to win it) is probably South Pacific.

The action centers around a couple of islands in the South Pacific during WWII. An American Navy nurse, Nellie Forbish, is a native of Little Rock, Arkansas who falls hard and fast for Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner with a dark past and many secrets. Emile asks Nellie to marry him but she is unsure -- unsure of the life she might have living in a totally foreign land and even more unsure of being stepmother to Emile's two children by a late Polynesian wife. Emile seduces her with the gorgeous song "Some Enchanted Evening" but, later on, when Nellie decides to dump him, she sings the classic "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair" -- and literally washes her hair on the stage. Will their differences keep them apart or will love conquer all? We can only guess until the end.

Meanwhile, it's not the natives who are restless but the American sailors who desperately want to commandeer a boat and ditch their base for the magical, mysterious island of Bali H'ai. Bloody Mary, a strange, middle-aged Tonikinese tempts them with the wonders of what they will find on this island ("Bali H'ai will call you ..."). Into this group of horny sailors lands Lt. Joe Cable, a strapping, dashing young officer who at first resists any temptation that Bali H'ai may hold. But later on, he does go with the sailors where he falls madly in love with Bloody Mary's daughter, singing the most beautiful song in the entire show "Younger Than Springtime."

But life in the South Pacific isn't all about love and sex. Joe and Emile are recruited to perform a top secret, very dangerous mission that drive both men away from the women they love -- and perhaps even leads to their deaths. How does it turns out? You must see South Pacific to find out.

The current production at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center has quick become legendary as one of the best stagings of this musical ever. It has been playing for two years and won lots of Tonys. We went last week and enjoyed it immensely. Laura Osnes plays the romantic but tough Nellie with a sweetness that shines through her entire performance and David Pitsssinger plays Emile as a man who has "issues" (many) but nonetheless is trying to be a better man than he has been for most of his life. Even better is the performance by young Andrew Samonsky as Joe Cable, who effectively builds the arch of his character from swashbuckling naval officer to lovesick patsy. Also excellent is Danny Burstein as Luther Billis, the comic relief of the musical. My favorite performance is by the woman who plays Bloody Mary, Loretta Ables Sayre (a Hawiian actress who is probably the most dimensional, most tragic, and most misunderstood character of the whole musical. When she sings "Bali H'ai" you get chills.

The staging of the musical is first rate, with a sliding stage that cover the orchestra during the show but uncovers it during the overture and entr'acte. The sets and costumes are beautiful and the pacing of the show is quick and efficient. This version of South Pacific closes in August so, if you want to have some enchanted evening (sorry, couldn't resist), go now!

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