There’s a moment at the very beginning of Lyric Stage’s production of South Pacific — when the lights dim and music director Jay Dias picks up his baton and flourishes it at a full orchestra — that you hear those first four famous chords from the overture, the opening notes of “Bali Ha’i:” duh-duh-DUH… Crash! It’s all brass and cymbals, and so totally “Broadway” — the rest of the overture’s orchestrations are as warm as a cocoa and blanket — but it also instantaneously transports you mentally to exotic Polynesia. It’s musical theater, as only Rodgers & Hammerstein could do it.
And what a pair they were: Collaborators for only 17 years (the partnership ended when Oscar Hammerstein died, in 1960), they wrote and produced nine stage musicals, a movie musical (State Fair) and one a made for TV (Cinderella, both since adapted for the stage). Their output wouldn’t be so impressive if it weren’t, well, so impressive. In 2015 alone, we have seen excellent large-scale productions in North Texas of Cinderella and The King and I even before Lyric worked it magic with SP, which it has done with the five “big” R&H musicals in recent years (The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, Carousel, King & I). This one, directed and choreographed by Len Pfluger in the style of the recent B’way revival, is just as wonderful as anything else they’ve done.
It would be easy to give much of the credit to the show itself, and lord knows, having Rodgers & Hammerstein on your show is as close to an imprimatur of quality as you can come without getting Consumer Reports involved. But it’s the full-throated abandon with which Lyric Stage produced their season — huge orchestras, original arrangements, large-scale casts and designs — that really makes you feel you’re as good as in New York City … circa 1958. Even real Broadway doesn’t do shows this big anymore, unless they have Disney animals or men bitten by radioactive spiders in the cast.
Set in the Solomon Islands during the war with Japan, South Pacific opened in 1949, less than four years after the end of WWII, and yet the issues it addresses — American Imperialism, racial tension, the “honorableness” of war, etc. — are as well-thought-out and progressive as anything you could find today. (Fully half of R&H’s shows dealt prominently with social justice and racism; Hammerstein was one of the great liberals of the 20th century.) The bigotry reveals itself subtly, shockingly, by hiding (as it often does) in unsuspecting places. When the bubbly bumpkin Nellie Forbush (Janelle Lutz) first utters the words “colored” to describe the biracial heritage of her boyfriend Emil’s (Christopher Sanders) children, it hits you like a fist to the face.
It might not if you didn’t want to root for so many people in the story — not just the relationship between Nellie and Emil, but that between cocky Lt. Cable (Anthony Fortino) and the Tonkinese teenager Liat (Lia Kerkman). Not everyone will end up together. Not every romance is a happy one. War is hell, after all, and love … well, love is often war, too.
You root for them here, especially Nellie, because, honestly, Janelle Lutz is one of the most intoxicatingly effervescent actresses on North Texas stages. When she sings “Wonderful Guy,” she brings the performance more joyful abandon than I’ve ever seen delivered in the role before, filling Carpenter Hall not with her size but with her boundless personality.
If Lutz is all perky fun, Fortino is sexual energy. His Cable is a bit of obnoxious swagger mixed with tenderness and pecs. It’s a good combination. Sonny Franks as Luther Billis and Sally Soldo as Bloody Mary also deliver memorable moments.
The downside of Lyric shows is that their scale also makes their shelf-lives fleeting: It opened last weekend and closes Sunday. That doesn’t give you much time to see it, but see it you should. No one does musical theater better in Texas that Lyric, and nobody ever did musicals better the Rodgers & Hammerstein.