Concert swells ‘Pacific’ waves

Tuner's Carnegie Hall perf could break down resistance to B'way revival

While it’s not the long-long-long-awaited Broadway revival, the Carnegie Hall staging of “South Pacific” promises to be the next best thing for anyone lucky enough to snag tix.

On June 9, Reba McEntire, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Lillias White will perform the musical in a one-night concert version.

In one of legit’s odder twists of fate, the 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning tuner remains the only Rodgers & Hammerstein classic never to have been revived on Broadway. And that decision has been purely intentional by the R&H Organization.

“Of all the Rodgers & Hammerstein shows, it is the most emotionally of its time,” says R&H Org prexy Ted Chapin.

“Our concern has always been, how do you get an audience back to that post-World War II era in which ‘South Pacific’ was originally staged? Unlike ‘The King and I,’ which gives you enough information about Siam, there’s emotionally something about ‘South Pacific’ that we’ve been struggling to get right.”

Careful not to tarnish a prized, lucrative title that continues to be performed all over the world, R&H has been ultra-conservative in keeping “South Pacific” off Broadway as it searches for the perfect production. (In the long meantime, “The King and I,” “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel” have clocked in three Broadway revivals apiece.)

It’s no secret that the R&H Org didn’t love the Robert Goulet-led national tour (2000-02) or Trevor Nunn’s recent production at the National in London, which rejiggered the opening scenes so the show began with the bang of “Bloody Mary” rather than the quiet “Dites-Moi” sung by two children.

Chapin warned Nunn, “Rodgers and Hammerstein knew what they were doing.” After all, less than five minutes into their story, they had the big gun of “Some Enchanted Evening,” arguably the greatest show tune ever written, to follow “Dites-Moi.”

The R&H people did like elements of Richard Hamburger’s 1999 staging at the Dallas Theater Center.

“Newsreels were shown over the overture,” Chapin recalls. “It was most successful at putting an audience back in the time of the show.”

Casting also is crucial.

The composer’s daughter Mary Rodgers saw McEntire perform “Annie Get Your Gun” on Broadway and immediately deemed her the perfect Nellie Forbush.

Chapin raves too: “What Reba brought to Annie Oakley was, ‘I am playing this part and it is me.’ There was no pretense and it fit like a glove.”

He expects history to repeat itself June 9. But seeing McEntire as Nellie on Broadway is what Chapin calls “my wildest dream.”

Outside the concert world, McEntire and Stokes Mitchell might not be considered a dream team.

As an African-American, Stokes Mitchell probably would cause racist Nellie as much concern as the two half-Polynesian children. And at 49, McEntire is two years older than Stokes Mitchell, which throws off the May-December romance dictated by the book.

A few years ago, the Rialto buzzed with tales that Placido Domingo might retire from opera with a “South Pacific” stint on Broadway. (Instead, he has taken out career insurance with directorships of the Washington Opera and the Los Angeles Opera.)

Domingo’s age and accent are right, but the low-lying role of Emile de Becque would have to be transposed up for the tenor, in effect, destroying the show’s careful balance between the tenor’s music (“Younger Than Springtime”) and the bass-baritone’s (“Some Enchanted Evening”).

Pundits criticized similar tinkering on the 1986 recording of “South Pacific,” which offers not one but two tenors, Jose Carreras as de Becque and Mandy Patinkin as Lt. Joseph Cable.

Better casting for “South Pacific” would be genuine basses such as Samuel Ramey or James Morris, who, like the original de Becque, Ezio Pinza, might want to say farewell to the Met and hello to Broadway with the musical theater’s most high-profile cameo: De Becque gets the plum of “Some Enchanted Evening,” but otherwise is onstage for only 15 minutes.

In the Carnegie Hall project, however, musical director Paul Gemignani assures that Stokes Mitchell will perform the bass-baritone role as written.

“There have been minor adjustments made for Lillias White (as Bloody Mary) and Reba McEntire,” he adds. “Nothing major.”

More major: At tuner’s end, Nellie and Emile will make a duet of “Some Enchanted Evening,” which is reprised. The contract for the original Nellie, Mary Martin, specified that she not be required to sing a duet with the great Pinza. She did agree, however, to perform “Twin Soliloquies” with him.

When “South Pacific” finally comes home to Broadway, it will never sound as lush as the Carnegie Hall version.

Gemignani estimates that the 1949 production had around 28 musicians.

“That’s the most a Broadway pit would hold,” he says. As for the 45 musicians he’s employing, “It’s what Richard Rodgers would want if he were doing ‘South Pacific’ at Carnegie Hall for one performance.”

With an able supporting cast that includes Jason Danieley, Conrad John Schuck, Dylan Baker and Alexander Gemignani, the show should be a musical feast.

As for its being great drama, Gemignani and book adapter David Ives stress that theirs is “a concert version” performed with music stands.

After radically cutting the books for 15 musicals at Encores!, Ives has devised a dictum for such work — and it’s one he applies to “South Pacific,” too.

“After the first scene, you really can’t have more than two pages of dialogue in a concert version,” he says. ‘South Pacific’ has a lot more book than most tuners, and its extensive dialogue in act two presents a future Broadway producer with his or her biggest challenge.

“In act two, there’s 15 pages between songs, some of which are reprised from act one. It becomes a war movie,” notes Ives. “I’ve found a way to cut those pages to one and a half.”

“South Pacific” eventually will make it back to Broadway, if for no other reason than it belongs there.

But before that can happen, what the production needs more than stars (who rarely sign on for more than six months) or eager producers (of which there are many) is a director who can reconceptualize the show for Broadway — as Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall did for “Cabaret,” as Walter Bobbie and Ann Reinking did for “Chicago.”

R&H has waited 50 years, but it probably won’t wait another 50 to see its “South Pacific” on Broadway.

“Every now and then,” says Chapin, “it’s important for a title to have a Broadway showing.”

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