Reba McEntire deep-sixed her script and Brian Stokes Mitchell his tux as they donned costumes to reprise their 2005 Carnegie Hall concert roles in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” in a genial, occasionally slapdash Hollywood Bowl staging by David Lee. The magnificent score still soars, and the book material proved remarkably sturdy and not at all dated, boding well for next spring’s major Gotham revival on a Lincoln Center stage presumably more congenial to a serious tuner than that of the gargantuan Bowl.
The two stars were ideally suited to the unlikely courtship of hick-from-the-sticks Nellie and cultured Frenchman Emile, she coming to her down-home sincerity naturally, he combining his inherent suavity with a convincing accent. Their voices never blended in duet (because of an agreement made long ago between Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza), but their styles did, and the romance built believably and with a heat not always evident elsewhere in the evening.
Lee employed fabric effectively throughout to establish a forestage, build a makeshift Pacific bathhouse or reveal pre- and post-coital young lovers. Yet even the sideline assemblage of packing crates and two Quonset huts couldn’t narrow the Bowl stage into anything less than an aircraft runway, with every cross or exit a delayed landing or takeoff.
Wanting to watch the full action unfold but learning little from each full stage picture, the eye couldn’t help but wander constantly to the giant Jumbotron screens as if at a drive-in, where McEntire’s expressiveness (even richer than in the PBS concert) and Mitchell’s exquisite performance of “This Nearly Was Mine” could register.
Group scenes and Mark Esposito’s dance numbers were energetic enough, but the feelings of Pacific war heat, fear and frustration that give the tuner its essential emotional context were lost. And all the space-filling musical fraternization between Seabees and nurses rendered the yearning “Nothing Like a Dame” and the “Honey Bun” drag bit from Luther Billis (Michael McKean) puzzling if not unnecessary.
A tuner this substantial may be better served by a straight-out concert, especially with Tom Ruzika’s lighting on the giant shell aptly color-coding the moods (and partially vindicating the much-derided color filters of the 1958 movie).
However the show is staged, it’s hard to imagine a better Lt. Cable than Aaron Lazar, complementing his thrilling singing with a carefully charted passage from Marine starch to malarial-tinged madness, inspired by a delicate Liat (Janelle Velasquez) any serviceman would abandon home for. All perfs came across best in the two-person scenes most suitable to the bigscreen TVs.
Paul Gemignani’s utter relaxation in a Hawaiian shirt didn’t compromise his vigorous conducting of some of the greatest orchestrations ever crafted. Though orchestra was obscured upstage behind all the frangipani, musicians did get an unparalleled view of the showering nurses washing men out of their hair. The Bowl giveth even as the Bowl taketh away.