After a successful run last summer, Dancap brings the Lincoln Center Theater’s magnificent production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific back to Toronto for a return engagement at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.
Based on a collection of short stories, Tales of the South Pacific, written by James A. Michener immediately after World War II, South Pacific originally debuted on Broadway in 1949. The show is a staple of the American musical theatre canon and features recognizable songs like “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Bali Ha’i”.
Set against the backdrop of World War II on an island in the South Pacific, the musical tells two parallel love stories; one between a U.S. Navy nurse, perpetual “cockeyed optimist” Nellie Forbush, and a French plantation owner, Emile de Becque; the other between a young but world-weary Lieutenant, Joseph Cable, and an island Tonkinese girl, Liat.
Taking into consideration the context in which the show was originally written; post-war, pre-civil rights era America; South Pacific dealt with the issues of war, racism and interracial relationships in a way that was groundbreaking. A song like Cable’s Act 2 tirade, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught [to hate]” was considered biting social commentary in a time when other musicals were merely escapist entertainment.
Admittedly, going in I wasn’t all that excited to see South Pacific. I thought, “Isn’t this just a dated musical that virtually every regional theatre on the continent has done to death?” I was in for a pleasant surprise.
Under the skillful and inventive direction of Bartlett Sher, the Lincoln Center Theater’s production of South Pacific is vibrant, dynamic and poignant. Sher didn’t “modernize” the show per se but he re-imagined it and chose to emphasize the more dramatic elements in the story instead of going the easier route of playing up the comedic aspects of the show.
The two leads, Nellie (Carmen Cusack) and Emile (David Pittsinger), are brilliant. They have an amazing, palpable chemistry together on stage and their interactions are electric.
David Pittsinger is commanding in the role of Emile de Becque. An operatic bass-baritone, his lush, full voice has a gravitas that really lends depth and soul to his character. His second act solo “This Nearly Was Mine” is heart-rending.
My play-going buddy and fellow Mooney on Theatre writer Ryan and I both agree that Carmen Cusack is an absolute revelation as Nellie Forbush. Not only is her singing exquisite and letter-perfect for Nellie, she also acts the part magnificently. She alternately highlights Nellie’s strength and vulnerability and plumbs the depths of the character’s internal conflicts. Carmen imbues the role with incredible depth, humanity and an irresistible charm. Ryan and I both fell head-over-heels in love with her.
Unfortunately, Aaron Ramey’s take on Lt. Joe Cable was less finely tuned. His portrayal was very coarse and gruff and I felt his character came off as off-putting instead of sympathetic.
Ryan thought the way in which Cable meets, immediately sleeps with and then falls in love with the much younger Liat was far-fetched and, not to mention, a little creepy. I’m inclined to agree. The Cable-Liat sub-plot isn’t well developed and doesn’t seem credible especially compared to the superbly drawn-out relationship between Nellie and Emile.
Jodi Kimura beautifully acts and sings the part of Liat’s mother, Bloody Mary, a resourceful if seedy Tonkinese islander. However, the way the role was written has never sat well with me. Bloody Mary is essentially an ethnic caricature and I think the director really missed an important opportunity here to update the part to give her more depth in this production. I would have liked to see a more humanized version of Bloody Mary rather than the stereotypical one-note comic relief.
I can’t say enough about the production design, it’s truly stunning.
The sets are gorgeously detailed, simple yet effective. Wood slat shade panels divide the stage and create different layering effects. Carefully-placed palm trees and subtly shifting lighting on a painted backdrop beautifully evoke the tropical setting of the South Pacific to grand romantic effect.
The scene where Nellie staggers down a moonlit beach pining for Emile in the pale moonlight with dark cumulous clouds illuminated on the backdrop is just so sexy and gorgeous to look at.
The show also sounds magnificent. In an age where pit orchestras for musicals become smaller and smaller and arrangements are increasingly reduced and padded with synthesizers the producers of South Pacific should be commended for employing a sumptuous 26-piece orchestra. In effect, we’re hearing the score the way it would have sounded sixty years ago; the way the composer intended.
Overall, the cast and creative team took a classic show that could have easily felt like a dated re-tread and elevated it to something sublime. It’s a brilliant production and a lavish feast for the eyes and ears.
– The Lincoln Center Theater Production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific Directed by Bartlett Sher
– Playing from February 15 to March 20, 2011 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge Street
– Tuesday – Saturday @ 7:30pm, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday @ 1:00pm
– Ticket prices start from $35 (inclusive of all taxes and service charges)
– Mooney on Theatre readers can take advantage of this special promotion to save up to $24.00 per ticket: Quote the promotional code “BENEFITS” when ordering tickets.
David Pittsinger as Emile de Becque and Carmen Cusack as Nellie Forbush – photo by Craig Schwartz