If the one-night-only concert staging of “South Pacific” Thursday brought admirers of the Rodgers & Hammerstein show only marginally closer to the Broadway revival they have waited 50 years for, the exceptionally well-cast Carnegie Hall presentation showed at least that there’s plenty of full-blooded life in this landmark musical’s gloriously romantic score. But even in this discreetly pruned version, the book’s racial-prejudice conflicts belong to another era and seem unlikely to connect with today’s audiences, leaving the questions that have long surrounded a full-scale production unanswered.
The presence of key Broadway producer-investors including Barry and Fran Weissler, Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein at the show gives some indication of the powerful allure, as the last of the R&H classics to be revived on a major N.Y. stage, of this World War II tale of two troubled romances on an island paradise.
With a leading woman who agrees readily to spy on the man she loves and recoils in shock upon learning he has a dead Polynesian wife and two brown-skinned children, the 1950 tuner challenged American audiences at a time when race attitudes were still very much in ferment. But such plot points require considerable concessions from contemporary theatergoers, as does the idea of an island woman who practically offers up her daughter for sex to a military man and potential husband (not to mention a Marine who sings “Gayer than laughter, am I”).
Reservations about the book aside, it’s impossible to deny the persuasiveness of these songs. Written at a time when the Broadway musical was as central to American popular culture as it is marginalized today, the show generated an uncommonly high yield of numbers that carved a deserved place in the national songbook. Just as important, the show’s range and distribution of song styles illustrates an impeccable craftsmanship long absent from the musical stage — from comedic songs like “Honey Bun” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” to rousing ensemble numbers like “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” lusty romantic outpourings like “A Wonderful Guy” and ballads both tender (“Younger Than Springtime,” “Some Enchanted Evening”) and tormented (“This Nearly Was Mine”).
Of course, great songs are nothing without capable performers, and director Walter Bobbie hit the motherlode here with a dream cast, headed by Reba McEntire as Ensign Nellie Forbush. As in most concert stagings, the cast performs on-book, which often tends to limit any depth of characterization. That is certainly evident in McEntire’s case, and given that her casting was announced last fall, the under-rehearsed singer’s reliance on script in hand, even during her songs, was disappointing. But despite some line flubs that contributed to a somewhat hesitant grasp of the character, McEntire’s warmth, sassy charm and down-home earthiness made her a delight in the role — “as corny as Kansas in August” and proud of it.
Identifying herself as a hick in her first scene, the unworldly Little Rock Navy nurse’s shakiness next to the moneyed, European smoothness of French planter Emile de Becque seemed almost natural. McEntire became increasingly comfortable as the concert proceeded, delivering a touching final act as Nellie fears that her blinkered stupidity has robbed her of love.
McEntire’s supple deployment of her twangy country sound not only gave her songs a fresh, plucky feel, but was an enjoyable contrast to the more theatrically-trained voices around her, notably that of Brian Stokes Mitchell as Emile. The pair’s gorgeous, introspective “Twin Soliloquies” was poignantly interpreted, a prime example of the incomparable R&H facility for expressions of incipient love that are both open-hearted and cautious.
McEntire’s funny, boisterous rendition of “Honey Bun” was one of the concert’s high points, given amusing support by Alec Baldwin as wiseguy sailor Luther Billis. Baldwin proved himself a great sport in the number, donning coconut bra and grass skirt and doing a few woozy hula moves. That song and the rowdy “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” which flooded the stage with testosterone as a crowd of sailors materialized suddenly from behind the orchestra, received the most fully theatrical treatment. (Giving a nod to the 1958 movie’s crazy Technicolor fantasy palette, Alan Adelman’s lighting soaked the back wall in psychedelic hues and tangled jungle shadows, but otherwise, this was a minimally designed and costumed presentation.)
A romantic lead with only limited stage time, Emile was brought robustly to life via Mitchell’s mellifluous baritone, a superb match for the show’s more richly emotional songs. If his French accent threatened at times to get in the way of the songs’ full depth of feeling, his “Some Enchanted Evening” was genuinely uplifting and the masterful build and effortless control he showed on “This Nearly Was Mine” brought down the house, showing why Mitchell is in the top tier of Broadway musical leading men.
No less vocally accomplished was Jason Danieley as doomed Marine Lt. Joe Cable. His sweet, pure tenor made exquisite work of “Younger Than Springtime” and “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” a song about the roots of racial hatred, no doubt audacious in its day and still timely. Danieley’s gentle, boyish openness made Joe’s romance with lovely Tonkinese girl Liat (Renita Croney) especially moving, while the conflict that stymies his surrender to love is another of the book’s more awkward hurdles.
Perhaps the most fully developed character was Lillias White’s Bloody Mary. With the island earth mother’s pidgin English and larger-than-life personality, this is a role steeped in caricature but played here with heart and a welcome lack of condescension. While her songs are among the show’s kitschiest, White’s sinuous vocals made “Bali Ha’i” into a seductive carnival barker’s pitch for a tropical getaway, while “Happy Talk” became a joyous promise of love and fulfillment.
In their more limited roles, Conrad John Shuck and Dylan Baker as Navy officers showed the beginnings of vibrant characterizations. In general, the cast’s timing and energy could frequently have been sharper in the clipped book scenes (Encores! series regular David Ives did the concert adaptation) but the tendency toward unforced performances was refreshing.
From the full eight-minute overture through the final-scene emotional swell, musical director Paul Gemignani led the 45-piece, string-heavy orchestra through the kind of lush, soaring arrangements that make musical fans swoon, backed by a 50-strong ensemble of voices. Some occasional problems with undermiked performers no doubt will be cleaned up before PBS airs the concert in the spring in its “Great Performances” series.