Six decades of community and lesser professional productions have kept “South Pacific” one of the most beloved and familiar of American musicals. But the Rodgers & Hammerstein estate greenlit the first-ever Broadway revival just last year, which lends Bartlett Sher’s staging for Lincoln Center Theater a real sense of occasion. The show’s San Francisco-launched touring edition should enchant nostalgics and newbies in a long road life.
Far more than with R&H’s “Oklahoma!,” whose story-driven music drama revolutionized the form, “South Pacific” surprises now for being such a play — the near-absence of dance underlines the seriousness about character and plot of this miscegenation-pivoted tale cobbled together from James Michener’s fictionalized war reminiscences.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of levity during the almost three-hour running time. Still, it’s often contextualized within very mixed emotions: “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” is an unconvincing argument against instinct; the giddy “Thanksgiving Follies” unfold amid tension over seemingly doomed romance; and “Happy Talk” takes on a troubling hue as Bloody Mary (Keala Settle) tries to finesse malarial Lt. Cable (Anderson Davis) into marrying the childlike Liat (Sumie Maeda).
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Carmen Cusack, a recent road Elphaba in “Wicked,” lends Ensign Nelly Forbush a flinty skepticism if perhaps not quite enough charm. She undersells her big numbers (“A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Outa My Hair,” “A Wonderful Guy”), but that’s in tune with Sher’s emphasis on the piece as a dramatic throughline rather than a series of musical highlights.
Rod Gilfrey’s expat French plantation-owner love interest is a bit of a stiff, admittedly — but then one almost expects this role, written for operatic bass, to be wooden. (Remember Rossano Brazzi mouthing Giorgio Tozzi’s voice in Joshua Logan’s uninspired 1958 film version?) However, Gilfrey’s rich timbre does make something gorgeous of Emile’s lament “This Was Nearly Mine.”
If this touring edition’s leads lack maximum charisma and mutual chemistry, they’re still effective. And Sher ensures the poignancies of subsidiary plotlines get equal weight — even if Hammerstein & Logan’s book sometimes feels clunky compared to the sleek whole-music-drama package Sher and collaborators contrived more recently on “The Light in the Piazza.”
Design elements here aren’t so graceful as in that piazza, though keyed to an eternal tropical sunset (and, after intermission, worrisome nighttime) in Donald Holder’s lighting. But plenty of sweet spots compensate, notably Davies’ soaring tenor on “My Girl Back Home” and “Younger Than Springtime,” as well as Matthew Saldivar’s spark as hustling Navy grunt Luther Billis.
Despite some uneven miking on opening night (and major line drops from one senior support thesp), the show sounds as lush as its timeless melodies deserve.