South Pacific, LA

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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South Pacific (Lincoln Center touring production)

Rod Gilfry and Carmen Cusack in the Lincoln Center production of “South Pacific”

By:  Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein
With:  Rod Gilfry and Carmen Cusack
A Lincoln Center Production
Ahmanson Theatre
Los Angeles
Through July 17, 2010

If it has been a long time since you have seen a movie or a play, and you try a reprise, it can disappoint.  Nothing can quite measure up to the image in your mind.  Then there are the lucky trips down memory lane where the material is as shiny and pleasing as you imagined.  The Lincoln Center production of “South Pacific” falls into the latter category.  If you have forgotten, the story is based on the James Michener collection of stories of the South Pacific; set on an island during World War II, it is just out of the mainstream of the war.  It is the tale of two parallel love stories that are undermined by the prejudice against interracial marriage.  Though a period piece, and despite the fact that social mores have changed, many of the issues of war remain true today.

Under Music Director Ted Sperling, and the baton of Lawrence Goldberg, the music is as alluring as it must have been when “South Pacific” first opened in 1949.  Mercifully no one in my immediate vicinity treated it as a sing-along, though the temptation was certainly there.  The original production daringly cast an opera star, Ezio Pinza, as the romantic lead; he was a vocal sensation and a heartthrob.  Baritone Rod Gilfry, who has performed often with the Los Angeles Opera, ably fills Pinza’s shoes visually as well as vocally.  He cuts a handsome and distinguished figure as Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner with a past, and his voice is warm and rich.  Carmen Cusack is Ensign Nellie Forbush — a plucky “hick” nurse from Arkansas who has volunteered to serve in order to put some excitement in her life.  Who would not fall for Gilfry singing “Some Enchanted Evening” while standing in his quintessential tropical plantation house?  He definitely fills the excitement bill for Nellie.

Here is where memory plays a trick.  I was decrying the apparent lack of chemistry between Gilfry and Cusack until I went online and found some clips of the original production and the movie.  It looks like that was true in the originals too.  It was my mind that took over direction.  Not until the final scene did the force of their attraction become palpable.  I cannot believe I am about to say this, but a tad more schmaltz in earlier scenes might have made the story all the more engaging.

Humorous pieces are even better than the big moments.  Keala Settle gives her all as Bloody Mary, a tough native woman constantly on the make, selling souvenirs to the sailor boys and luring them with lustful tales of Bali Ha’i … “you like?”  Her counterpart among the seabees, Luther, amply matches her in opportunistic antics.  It is hard to imagine a better Luther than  Broadway veteran, Matthew Saldivar.  He embodies the entrepreneurial moxie of the poor kid off the streets of Brooklyn or the Bronx.  Bored out of his mind, sitting on an island while war rages elsewhere, no available women to be had, he sells everything from showers for the nurses, a laundry service, to grass skirts for the natives to peddle back to the servicemen.  You want it?  He promises to deliver.  The scenes of the seabees horsing around, led by him, are fresh, full of energy, and peppered with seemingly effortless antics.  

Living in a major city located in a blue state, it is not too difficult to lose sight of the Sturm und Drang engendered by the sight of an inter-racial couple.  Two young women preceded me leaving the theater, one a blond and the other vaguely Asian.  I overheard them saying that it was silly to think such a tempest would be unleashed by some darker skin.  In 1949 “South Pacific” was social commentary as well as entertainment.  If the commentary is not quite as strong everywhere today, the entertainment remains.  There is room to nitpick this production, but to do so diminishes the joy of seeing an old friend who delights even if he does not exactly fit the picture you have nurtured in your mind.

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