Intimate and grand, R&H revival gives the Winspear a show it deserves
The teaming of Rodgers & Hammerstein is such a familiar shorthand for the Great American Musical, it’s easy to think of their shows as classics frozen in time — museum pieces of another era, before Broadway was corporatized and $10 million budgets with movie stars attached became the norm.
But just glance through the song list in the program of South Pacific, and try not to be startled at the iconic titles concentrated in this one show: "A Cockeyed Optimist," "Some Enchanted Evening," "There Is Nothing Like a Dame," Bali Ha’i."
And that’s just in the first two scenes.
South Pacific isn’t often revived, so the production now at the Winspear — the national tour of the faboo Lincoln Center version that swept the Tony Awards last year — offers a vision of the show far different from the 1958 film that many of us grew up with. The most striking thing is what an intimate show it is: Grand, yes, but emotionally resonant as well.
That’s evident in how prosaically the story begins, with a tentative romance between nurse Nellie Forbush (Carmen Cusack, who emphasized her character’s hick roots in a way Mitzi Gaynor never did) and Emile de Becque (Jason Howard), a French plantation owner living in Polynesia during World War II. A subplot about Marine pilot Lt. Cable (Anderson Davis) and his relationship with a local girl mirrors Pinkerton and Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly. That alone makes South Pacific as close as any Broadway composers have come to fashioning a true American opera.
Which makes it an ideal production for the Winspear Opera House, itself designed around ideas of grandeur and intimacy. Two months into the center, it’s the piece that fits the best.
But the remnants of opera also hold it back a bit. As de Becque, Howard tends to sing his role more than act it, staring into the balcony while singing with his rich baritone. Davis, hunky but also in fine voice, is also a stiff.
Such quibbles are minor, however, in the context of the entire production, which has unexpectedly dynamic elements, especially in its handling of sexual frankness.
There is brief onstage male nudity, and "Nothing Like a Dame" has never more potently captured sexual frustration. Cable’s seduction of Liat borders on child endangerment, adding a weirdly pedophilic aspect I’d never sensed before.
Cusack outdistances her male co-stars, although the show is stolen by the supporting players. Keala Settle turns Bloody Mary into a scary stalker; it’s an edgy, near-villainous twist that makes Cruella DeVil in the recent 101 Dalmatians seem like a lightweight. And Matthew Saldivar’s charismatic take on Luther Billis is played less for comic effect than as a heart-sick drifter.
Rodgers & Hammerstein were rare among their contemporaries in tackling social issues like racism as this show does, but the themes are so well integrated into the exotic locales and music, it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. Quite the opposite: This South Pacific is a woozy success.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 18, 2009.