Before Bartlett Sher’s staging of “South Pacific” gets under way, an excerpt splashed across a front scrim from James A. Michener’s source stories characterizes the writer’s time stationed in the region during WWII: “The waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting.” It’s been almost six decades between the 1949 opening of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic and the show’s first Broadway revival, but the Lincoln Center Theater production sure makes the waiting worthwhile. From the seductive swell of a full orchestra playing the glorious five-minute overture through the poignant final tableau of love and reconciliation, this is ravishing theater.
Waiting figures in other ways, too. The keynote to Sher’s approach is restraint. Nothing is pushed too hard in this naturalistic presentation, stripped of Broadway bravado, whether it’s dramatic scenes, comedy or even the seemingly effortless vocals. (The cast’s singing harks back to a time before the virtues of control, subtlety, smoothness and interpretation became secondary in popular music to the now-ubiquitous power surge.) All that quiet restraint serves to make the stealth-like, cumulative emotional power more overwhelming.
Concerns about the show’s viability for modern audiences have often centered on Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan’s book, with its reflections on the racial divide that predate the civil rights movement. Sher faces that potential hurdle by tackling it without condescension. He treats the drama with integrity and emotional sincerity, so even as we’re shocked by the prejudice that threatens to extinguish both the story’s dual romances, we’re given the insight to know where that inherited intolerance is coming from and not to lose all sympathy for the characters.
This is undeniably a period piece but it’s approached here with a serious-minded contemporary sensibility that keeps it relevant. Mixed-race relationships may now be accepted, but as anyone following the presidential contest knows, race itself remains an issue. And questions about the morality of war, the loss of lives and the way America engages with the world inevitably continue to resonate today, perhaps even more than when the show was first seen in the aftermath of WWII.
As he showed in “The Light in the Piazza,” Sher is neither coy nor cynical in dealing with romance, and he grounds his treatment of the twin love stories in “South Pacific” in the same truthfulness. Auds familiar with the material only via Logan’s lumbering 1958 screen version might be surprised by how thoroughly this production of the dramatic musical avoids any hint of hokey mid-20th century naivety.
That success is due not just to meticulously thought-through directorial choices but to impeccable casting.
Possibly the most accomplished young actress in American musical theater today, Kelli O’Hara’s creamy vocals are perfection. She has more innate sophistication than is indicated for “Knucklehead” Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse and self-described hick from Little Rock who falls in love with cultured older French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Paulo Szot). But she has a wholesome openness that helps soften Nellie’s dismayed reaction upon discovering Emile has two mixed-race children (endearing tykes Laurissa Romain and Luka Kain). O’Hara clowns or swoons as required, but her characterization has an anchoring sobriety appropriate for a sensitive woman dealing with the gravity of war.
Closer in age to Nellie than past actors in the role, handsome Brazilian operatic baritone Szot is new to musicals and a real find. His initial reserve is in keeping with an emotionally cautious man with a dark past, but he’s quickly mellowed by love. The strength of character, quiet masculinity, kindness and mellow intensity Szot brings to the role are all channeled in his velvety voice. His “Some Enchanted Evening” is more measured than the usual impassioned declaration but all the more stirring for it, and his escalating regret in “This Nearly Was Mine” delivers chills.
Matthew Morrison (like O’Hara, a “Piazza” recruit) darkens the innocence of Princeton-educated Lt. Joe Cable a few shades. His cockiness allows him to melt more affectingly when, despite being unable to reconcile their differences, he falls in love with islander beauty Liat (Li Jun Li, enchanting). Again, Sher’s tack of holding back to wield greater impact later adds depth to this troubled relationship. In addition to his quiet but rapturous “Younger Than Springtime,” Morrison charms in “My Girl Back Home,” a wistful throwaway cut prior to the original Broadway bow.
As Liat’s mother, island mercenary Bloody Mary, marvelous Hawaiian actress Loretta Ables Sayre also brings ambiguous nuances to a role often played more reductively for comedy, embracing the character’s crankiness and corruption without erasing her warmth. Pulling her canoe-cart of native souvenirs like Mother Courage, made-up and costumed like an anime witch, she’s a shady figure whose maternal concerns for her daughter are manifested in questionable ways. Her offering of exotic pleasures in “Bali Ha’i,” and of love and leisure in “Happy Talk,” both have a haunting double edge.
Least complicated of the principal characters is Luther Billis, an opportunistic wise-guy sailor played by Danny Burstein as three stooges in one, with a touch of Bert Lahr. But even Luther has a soul, revealed in his treatment of Nellie and the possibly noble purpose of his stowaway stunt during a maneuver behind enemy lines. The suspense of the military strategy and radio-command scenes here contributes to Sher’s steady heightening of the emotional stakes.
The robust 40-member cast is matched by a generous 30-piece orchestra, giving some indication of the significant investment LCT has made to do right by this long-awaited revival. Music director Ted Sperling conducts with a delicate touch and suppleness of tone that highlights Robert Russell Bennett’s ageless orchestrations. The incidental music (arranged by Trude Rittmann) is especially pleasing and Scott Lehrer deserves plaudits for a sound mix that allows every note of Richard Rodgers’ score — one of the most lush, tuneful and romantic in American musical history — and every lyric the same brilliant clarity.
This is not a dance-heavy show, but Christopher Gattelli’s musical staging blends seamlessly with Sher’s fluid direction of overlapping scenes. The boisterous presentation of the sex-starved sailors’ “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” is a high point in comic energy.
However, it’s the superb design team’s contributions that cannot be overpraised. The level of artistry and inventive stagecraft on display is breathtaking. Catherine Zuber’s costumes succinctly define the characters, while Donald Holder’s evocative lighting, drenched in cool pastels, works in dazzling unison with Michael Yeargan’s sets. These are framed, and at times screened, by wooden blinds that cast arresting shadow effects straight out of ’40s Hollywood.
The principal setting of an expanse of sand with a single palm tree atop a dune conjures both paradise and melancholy solitude, undergoing the startling transformation of military occupation when crates, oil drums, a crane and even a plane are rolled in. It seemed unimaginable last season that the vast Beaumont stage would ever again be used to create such majestic pictures as those in “The Coast of Utopia.” But this outstanding achievement is at least the equal of that milestone production.