As on Broadway, the star of this touring “South Pacific” is helmer Bartlett Sher. And, of course, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s gorgeous score. Under Sher’s insightful direction, it’s difficult to see why the Rodgers & Hammerstein Org ever considered this tale of World War II-era racism a problematic show and did not sanction a Broadway revival until 2008, nearly 60 years after its world premiere in Gotham. Regardless of the long wait, Sher delivers by keeping the show’s darkest underpinnings if not center stage then in constant relief against the story’s always stormy background.
No airhead ingenue, Carmen Cusack begins as an especially patrician Ensign Nellie Forbush — think Celeste Holm in her early movie days — but quickly delivers the requisite all-American gee-whiz/can-do ethic in her country and western-flavored delivery of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics. She’s really in love with the mysterious Frenchmen Emile de Becque (Rod Gilfry) when she sings “A Wonderful Guy,” and she’s really a racist when in act two she laughs at his Polynesian children and remarks, “They look just like you!” It’s a standout performance from an actress, seen mostly on the West End, who should be Broadway bound.
Sher prepares us for Nellie’s outburst of bigotry throughout act one: The three African-American sailors remain grouped apart from the other servicemen. Keala Settle’s Bloody Mary is an ogre of capitalism, a woman who hasn’t so much turned the other cheek to racial epithets as developed a hard skin to better exploit those detractors. Her usual comic foil, Luther Billis, is played here by Matthew Saldivar, who makes this sailor less a clown than a sleazy womanizer.
In act two, Billis’ protection of Nellie when de Becque tries to win her back is especially noxious. And in what may be Sher’s most brilliant moment of deconstruction, the impossibly upbeat “Happy Talk” becomes just another moment for Bloody Mary to pimp her own daughter, Liat (Sumie Maeda), to Lt. Joseph Cable (wonderfully sung by Anderson Davis).
Not that this “South Pacific” turns into a dirge. Sher relies on the Rodgers and Hammerstein score to keep the show buoyant. Why was “South Pacific” considered problematic? While its creators loaded the show’s first 15 minutes with “Dites-Moi,” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Twin Soliloquies” and “Some Enchanted Evening,” the final half hour is nearly tune free. Sher wisely reprises “Honey Bun” as a march.
If there’s any letdown here, it’s that the sparks between Nellie and de Becque never fully ignite. Gilfry, once a regular at L.A. Opera, is a rather stiff Frenchman and his accent sometimes conjures up Transylvania, which doesn’t quite set the appropriate mood for romance regardless of the “Twilight” connotations.
On Broadway, Lincoln Center Theater took the care to provide the slightest cushion of amplification. Here at the much larger Ahmanson, the miking is even more garish than usual. It’s all treble and no bass. Even in the bump-and-grind “Honey Bun,” the trombones barely registered.