Friday, May 02, 2008


The Wow Factor

By Josh R
The clean-scrubbed, resolutely cheerful heroine of South Pacific describes herself — in song, no less — as “A Cockeyed Optimist.” Outside the rosy alternative reality of musical theater, I have heard that such people do, in fact exist — somewhat astonishing given how little there is in today’s socio-political and economic climate to inspire a sanguine frame of mind. As to all the optimists out there, cockeyed or not, I envy them fact that they can find things to sing about; optimism and I parted ways two presidential elections ago.

It might not sit well with those who prefer to view the world through rose-colored glasses, or with their heads buried deep in the sand, if I were to suggest that their outlooks could benefit greatly from of healthy injection of cynicism. Think of all the mess that could be avoided if our willingness to accept whatever we’re told by authority figures — parents, teachers, religious leaders and politicians — were tempered by skepticism and an element of suspicion? As both general virtues and qualities of citizenship, they get a bad rap.

When Lincoln Center’s revival of South Pacific, currently playing at The Vivian Beaumont Theatre, started reaping the kind of notices press agents dream about — and really, its reception by the New York theater critics has been no less enthusiastic than that accorded to the original 1949 production — I registered it all with a grain of salt. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s seminal achievement, while outfitted with one of the greatest scores ever written for the musical stage, has never been entirely my cup of tea; in terms of its attitudes, which flirt dangerously with both corniness and preachiness, the material has always seemed so specific to the postwar era that it seemed worth questioning how much resonance it could have for a contemporary audience. Not even a show armed to the teeth with the sort of musical standards that never go out of style can necessarily make for a timeless work of theater.

By my estimation, my vast reserve of cynicism had thoroughly evaporated less than five minutes into Bartlett Sher’s breathtaking, bountiful and altogether extraordinary new production, which not only restores South Pacific to its former glory, but is one of the few musical productions in recent memory to qualify as a truly transcendent theatergoing experience. Not for a fraction of a second does the show betray its age, or feel even remotely like a relic of the past; delivered with gripping immediacy and an even more dazzling sense of theatricality, it is the kind of unqualified triumph that comes about as close to perfection as any show can be reasonably — or unreasonably — be expected to do. As an improbable side note, it’s also the first show I’ve seen in a long, long time that runs the risk of turning me into a cockeyed optimist; if South Pacific is any indication of what the theater is still capable of, I’d say that looking ahead, there’s every reason to look on the bright side.

Adapted from James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, the show is primarily a consideration of culture clash — and the conflicted impulses it can produce in those doing the clashing — set against the backdrop of World War II. The pert, positive-thinking Nellie Forbush, a Navy nurse stationed with American troops on a tropical South Seas island, has fallen in love with a middle-age French plantation owner, Emile De Becque. Their burgeoning romance hits a stumbling block when Nellie learns that Emile has fathered two bi-racial children by his late wife, a Polynesian native; her prejudice overrides her better instincts, and she rejects his proposal of marriage. In a parallel storyline, Lt. Joe Cable, the Ivy League scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family, becomes similarly enamored of a native girl. Like Nellie, he doesn’t trust his feelings enough to place them above his own unspoken fears and doubts about entering into an interracial marriage. While not the first Broadway musical to deal frankly with the subject of racism — Show Boat, Hammerstein’s landmark collaboration with Jerome Kern, preceded it by about 20 years — South Pacific was groundbreaking in terms of just how direct, and directly confrontational, it was in its approach. In putting racial prejudice under the microscope, the authors were also holding up a mirror to their audiences, in a manner not only intended to strike a chord of instant recognition but hit uncomfortably close to home. Complacent theatergoers were being asked not only to understand, but to identify with the behaviors being held up for scrutiny and condemnation. The practitioners of race prejudice here are not simply two-dimensional villains; they are fundamentally decent individuals grappling with feelings they cannot fully define or comprehend, which become a source of both shame and embarrassment. In “Carefully Taught,” one of the show’s most famous songs — and still incendiary stuff by modern standards — the authors trace the origins of prejudice back to formative experience and systematic indoctrination. Nellie insists that her inability to reconcile her understanding of right and wrong with the irrational fears that keep her in tether as “something that’s born in me.” Rodgers and Hammerstein know better — they contend that bigotry is the product of environment and upbringing, as opposed to biological instinct.

This being Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose most oft-revisited works are the family-friendly classics Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music, the vinegary content is diluted with ample quantities of sugar water. The marriage of sober social commentary and bright, crowd-pleasing entertainment has never seemed an altogether comfortable union — not even in Josh Logan’s enjoyably lavish 1958 film adaptation — but in Sher’s production they meld seamlessly into a remarkably balanced and unified whole. Just as very little in life is ever black-and-white, there is room in South Pacific for both light and dark, elements which are rendered here in ways that not only complement each other but have an effect of mutual enhancement. A big, brash production number such as “There is Nothing Like a Dame” is subtly informed by the way in which the African-American soldiers occupy a different part of the stage from their white counterparts, while the lush romanticism of “Younger than Springtime” also poses for a moment of reflection and foreboding — one in which it becomes all too apparent that nothing is quite as simple or as straightforward as it appears on the surface (a boy and girl are falling in love in the most blissful way imaginable, while at the same time a woman also is selling her daughter’s virtue to ensure her own survival). The comic and tragic elements are integrated in such a way that even the most stylized contrivances of South Pacific contain a kernel of reality; more impressively still, none of the entertainment value falls by the wayside in the process. Sher and his team don’t have to sacrifice any of the fun or the joy of South Pacific in order to get its message across — which they do, without pressing or in any way dampening the buoyant spirit of the material. Whether making a serious point, or simply trying to entertain the dickens out of its audience, everything taking place on the stage of The Vivian Beaumont exists in perfect harmony with everything else.

Harmony is the right word to describe the level on which Sher’s cast functions. There isn’t a single individual cavorting across the broad expanse of David Yeargan’s evocative set who seems in any way out of place, and the interplay between the actors — which extends right down to the minor members of the large ensemble — is nothing less than miraculous. The principals are so-well chosen that seem to inhabit their characters with an effortlessness that goes beyond natural instinct; often, it seems almost by chance.

The beguiling Kelli O’Hara has attracted a great deal of attention of late for her performances in celebrated musicals of yesteryear; in addition to her delectable Tony-nominated turn in The Pajama Game, this past year alone she has toplined a much-praised concert staging of My Fair Lady for The New York Philharmonic, and a revival of Oklahoma! as part of that state’s centennial festivities. With her performance in South Pacific, she confirms her status as one of the best interpreters of vintage material in contemporary musical theater. That distinction owes itself to more than just her mastery of period vocal style, for Ms. O’Hara is as fine an actress as she is a singer — and believe me, that’s saying something. It’s easy to judge musical theater performers on a different, and somewhat lesser scale than actors in straight plays; in most cases, their performances seem pitched squarely to the audience, with emotions delivered in all caps for exaggerated emphasis (or worse still, in hastily scrawled-out shorthand). From this point on, Ms. O’Hara can be held to a different standard entirely; if she ever decides to take a break from musical theater (hopefully, not a permanent one), there’s no danger of her seeming out of her depth should she decide to ply her talents elsewhere. As Nellie Forbush, she gets the quality of apple-pie wholesomeness absolutely right, but even when singing about being “as corny as Kansas in August” (the role seemingly screams out for the oblivious, white-washed sunniness of a latter-day Doris Day) there isn’t one aspect of her characterization that seems false, forced or in any way disingenuous. Her Nellie is an All-American sweetheart with girl-next-door charm to spare, but also a deeply conflicted woman, unsure of herself in unfamiliar surroundings, and coming face to face with inner demons that rattle her to the core. For bringing her character to three-dimensional life with such empathy and insight, and for never flinching when the material requires her to dig deeper below the surface, she ably demonstrates that the only limitations on her talent in future may be the lack of opportunity to exercise it. If some enterprising soul would write a new musical worthy of her, this wouldn’t be so conspicuous a challenge. It isn’t a problem here, though. Ms. O’Hara has shone brightly on previous occasions; in South Pacific, she has unmistakably attained the luster of a genuine star.

Since one star does not a constellation make, Mr. Sher has populated his production with performers who can not only travel the same altitude as his leading lady, but radiate enough light and warmth on their own to illuminate the material in ways mere star turns seldom do. Brazilian opera star Paulo Szot, best known on these shores for his appearances with The New York City Opera, makes a stunning theatrical debut in the role of Emile. With his broad shoulders and soulful eyes, the matinee-idol handsome Mr. Szot is not only a believable object of romantic attraction; when he applies his rich, soaring baritone to that little ditty that launched a thousand sighs, “Some Enchanted Evening,” or the equally swoon-worthy “This Nearly Was Mine,” the lyrics have an emotional resonance that extends beyond the words themselves. Every phrase is invested with such tenderness and longing that everything around the actor seems to fade into soft focus; I swear that in the middle of his rendition of “This Nearly Was Mine,” time stopped — no mean feat, considering how swiftly this three-hour production, which cuts through the waves as smoothly as ocean liner, seems to glide by. The qualities that make his vocal performance so spectacular carry over to his acting scenes with Ms. O’Hara; the captivating chemistry they share is all the more disarming for its poignant delicacy. Is it unlikely that Mr. Szot, whose talents will doubtless be no less in demand in the wake of this most recent triumph, will become a frequent visitor to the Broadway stage. It can only be hoped that this appearance will not be his last.

The supporting cast is top-of-the-line, with each member given his or her chance to shine in turn. Danny Burstein is in great form as the mischief-making seabee Luther Billis — his “Honey Bun” routine with Ms. O’Hara provides the evening with its comedic high point. Matthew Morrison, who continues to move up quickly in the ranks of Broadway leading men, gives a thoughtful, sensitive account of the conflicted Lt. Cable, while Li Jun Li makes the piece’s most thinly conceived character, the fragile and pliant Liat, a genuinely touching figure. The Hawaiian actress Loretta Ables Sayre brings a sense of bare-knuckled desperation, as well as some intriguing hints of menace, to her depiction of the wily war profiteer Bloody Mary — a role usually played, in previous contexts, in the spirit of broad comic caricature. As for the remainder of the 40 person cast, there is nary a generic chorus kid in sight; each member of the energetic ensemble has been directed to give a highly individualized performance, while collectively they contribute immeasurably to the production's highly authentic sense of time and place — something abetted by Catherine Zuber’s pitch-perfect period costumes and Donald Holder’s sumptuous lighting design. The 30-piece orchestra, working from the original 1949 musical arrangements, does full and glorious justice to Rodgers’ rich, melodic score, which washes over the audience like a succession of waves breaking smoothly upon the sand.

So what’s wrong with South Pacific? The only thing I can come up with — and I’m reaching here — is that The Vivian Beaumont Theatre doesn’t seem to come equipped with enough seats. According to sources in the know, the ticketing crunch has grown to the point that there’s already a waiting list for Thanksgiving weekend (one can only imagine the boon this has been to the scalping industry). For anyone who cares about musical theater — heck, for anyone who cares about theater in general — do whatever you have to do in order to snag yourself a shore pass. Genuine wows are in short supply on Broadway these days. When one comes along…well, to paraphrase the song, once you have found it, never let it go.

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On a very trivial note, I remember my mother saying it was such a huge thing that Mary Martin actually washed her hair for every performance, day in and day out. In the forties/early fiftes no one washed their hair that often and it was written about in the reviews of the time, that her hair might fall out because of it!
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