Friday, June 24, 2011

REWIND: 'South Pacific' Revival at Lincoln Center

Kelli O'Hara (Nellie Forbush) and Paulo Szot (Emile De Becque)
Kelli O'Hara, center, and the members of the company.
Danny Burstein (Luther Billis) and members of the company
(all photos: Joan Marcus & Lincoln Center)
The much heralded Lincoln Center Revival of 'South Pacific' has long since closed after a run of 996 performances (and 37 previews) from March 1, 2008 to August 22, 2010 at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York City.

As the Lincoln Center production gears up to be revived in London this August at the Barbican Theatre with the original creative and design team intact, I thought this would be an opportunity to look back on a show that I found superlative and was worth while to see more than once.

Based on James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories "Tales of the South Pacific," the musical focuses on French plantation owner Emile de Becque and his love interest, Nellie Forbush, a naive young nurse from Arkansas. Set against the backdrop of World War II, 'South Pacific' the show includes the classic songs from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and tackles serious themes of racial intolerance and bigotry.

My prior experience with the show has been from the 1958 film adaptation which had the poorly conceived device of using color filters for all the musical numbers; a 2001 television version starring Glenn Close and Harry Connick, Jr. during a short-lived trend of bringing musical productions to television; and local stage revivals that were always challenged with capturing the tropical locale and melding the music with the dramatic backdrop of World War II. My last experience was viewing a public television broadcast of a 2006 concert staging starring country singer Reba McEntire and Alec Baldwin. Some of these incarnations had a few performances that were either ill cast, performed or, at its worst, sung.

Danny Burstein and Kelli O'Hara
Paulo Szot and Kelli O'Hara
From the moment the overture started, I knew this Broadway revival was a special production unlike any other I have ever seen. As is custom today at many shows the orchestra is hidden from view due to either the theater or scenery limitations. Not this time. A retractable stage reveals the 30-piece orchestra, one of the largest Broadway has ever seen and the reveal is met with awe and applause from the audience. Also most shows augment the orchestra with synthesizers.

The elaborate production design envelopes the stage with great effect to give the sense of an endless beach, wide ocean, distant shores and even a 1940s bomber plane. No expense was spared. Slatted screens transforms the scenery seamlessly into a plantation house and war room.

Matthew Morrison (Lt. Joseph Cable) and Li Jun Li (Liat)

For nearly thirty minutes at the start of act one there are no scene changes and this revival is paced appropriately keeping the audience engaged. Just in these moments classic music numbers come out it: "Some Enchanted Evening," "A Cockeyed Optimist," "Twin Soliloquies" and "Dites-Moi". Seeing it again in 2008 I forgot how many other memorable songs are from the musical: "Younger Than Springtime," "A Wonderful Guy," and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair". For the record, the show also contains one of the longest segments void of any musical numbers in Act II.

Closing the circle of perfection was the 30-member cast lead by Paulo Szot, a star of the opera world, bringing a handsome, virile and unforgettable performance as the plantation owner, Emile DeBeque. His sturdy singing of "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine" stops the show. His take of the role will unlikely be unmatched for a long time to come.

Loretta Ables Sayre (Bloody Mary) and members of the company
Li Jun Li and Loretta Albes Sayre
Kelli O'Hara as Nellie Forbush is wholesome and warm playing the clown as she washes that man out of her hair or singing about her honey bun. She displays a sensitivity as she is romanced by De Becque and in dealing with her dismay of his mixed-race children.

Paulo Szot and Kelli O'Hara
Danny Burstein is swell and fun in the role of Luther Billis bridging the character's scheming for his next money making effort with his affection for Nellie. Hawaiian actress Loretta Ables Sayre is perfectly sassy and cranky as Bloddy Mary. Often a role played for comedy, she becomes a shady figure as she peddles her tropical goods with an underlying purpose of finding a sailor for her daughter Liat (Li Jun Li). "Happy Talk" usually performed for fun takes on a layered meaning in the context of Sayre's rendition and staging. Her highlight is the haunting "Bali Ha'i".

Shortly before hitting television stardom on Fox television's "Glee" Matthew Morrison was a Broadway star originating the role of Link Larkin in 'Hairspray' and receiving a Tony nomination for the musical adaptation of 1960 novella 'The Light in the Piazza' (filmed in 1962). As the doomed Lt. Joseph Cable, Morrison captures a darker portrayal than in previous characterizations. 

Paulo Szot and Matthew Morrison
For a 60-year-old musical, it was like seeing the show for the first time. Lavish and dramatic through and through. It was a production not to be missed. So taken with the production I had to see it again when I returned to NYC in 2009 with the most of the cast intact except for O'Hara who was out on maternity leave. But her replacement Laura Osnes ('Grease') took to the role like a glove. Andrew Samonsky played Lt. Cable whose take on the role if rather severe was an interesting contrast to Morrison.

This revival won praise from critics across the board and won seven Tony Awards in 2008, the most that year, in these musical categories: revival, actor (Paulo Szot), direction (Bartlett Sher), scenic design (Michael Yeargan), costume design (Catherine Zuber), lighting design (Donald Holder) and sound design (Scott Lehrer). Its other nominations included actress (Kelli O'Hara), featured actor (Danny Burstein), featured actress (Loretta Ables Sayre) and choreography (Christopher Gattelli). The show's eleven nominations was also the most that season.

For those unable to make it to New York City, one of the last performances was filmed for broadcast on August 18, 2010, five days before the show's closing. As is usual with television broadcasts of Lincoln Center productions, a DVD will not be available mainly due to contract restrictions prohibiting such a release. The CD recording featuring the 2008 cast is available. The national tour of the show opened in San Francisco in 2009 and continues across America.

Paulo Szot and Kelli O'Hara
The company at curtain call as the stage retracts to reveal the orchestra.
(image: Sara Krulwich/New York Times)


The London production opening later this summer will feature Paulo Szot and Loretta Ables Sayre repeating their roles from New York, both who made their Broadway debuts in 'South Pacific' and now to make their West End debuts. Both will continue in the roles on the UK tour. English actress and singer Samantha Womack plays Nellie Forbush.

The DETAILS (London Production)

  • What: Lincoln Center Theater production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's 'South Pacific'
  • Where: Barbian Theatre, London
  • Website:
  • Tickets:
  • When: Mon-Sat 7:30pm; Thu & Sat 2:30pm
  • Running Time: 3 hours
  • Ticket Prices: £15-£85
  • Opening: Aug 23, 2011 (previews from Aug 15, 2011)
  • Closing: Oct 1, 2011
  • Cast Recording: The New Broadway Cast Recording (2008)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...