This year’s PNC-sponsored “Broadway Across America” series began with the National Tour of the revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, originally performed at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater. Although the caliber of the “Broadway Series” is always spectacular, this production of South Pacific absolutely raised the already-high bar that audiences have come to expect.
Upon entering the Benedum Center for the Arts, the proscenium of the stage – always changing with each production that comes – was decorated in bamboo, and the curtain was made to look like an old piece of typewriter paper, on which was written part of James A. Michener’s collection of short stories, Tales of the South Pacific, upon which Rodgers and Hammerstein based the musical. When the first notes of the overture rang through a mostly-full theater, a collective gasp went up from the audience; in that moment, the door to another world was opened, and every person in the theater gladly stepped through to join characters perhaps familiar, perhaps brand new.
Certainly nothing short of enchanting.
As the curtain rose to reveal Christina Carrera and CJ Palma as Ngana and Jerome, respectively, the children of French expatriate Emile de Becque, playing and singing, the experience had begun. When Carmen Cusack (as Ensign Nellie Forbush), and David Pittsinger (as de Becque) stepped onto the stage, there was no turning back. Cusack and Pittsinger simmered together, and it was easy to believe that it had only taken two weeks for Nellie to fall in love with the planter, and he with her. Pittsinger’s performance of the iconic “Some Enchanted Evening” stopped the show, and literally had some audience members sitting on the edges of their seats.
The rest of the characters – eccentric Bloody Mary (Jodi Kimora), the playful Seabees (led by Luther Billis, played by Timothy Gulan with endearing glee), the newly-arrived Marine Lt. Joseph Cable (Anderson Davis), and a smattering of other nurses, sailors, and other expected base personnel – were introduced and dazzled in their own rights, as they presented classics like “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” Bali Ha’i,” and “I’m Gonna’ Wash That Man Right Outa’ My Hair.” This was a cast that truly moved seamlessly with one another, and that held no weak links. Vocally, the performance left nothing to be desired; Cusack was more than capable of carrying the show on her shoulders, Pittsinger was unbelievable, and Kimora, Gulan, and Davis shone in their respective roles.
Supported by an unbelievable orchestra – an unusually large one for a touring production, it seemed – there was something absolutely transfixing about everything that transpired onstage. The majestic, familiar score seemed right at home in the beautiful Benedum, but never overpowered the actors and actresses tasked with singing it, and the lighting beautifully complemented not only the stage, but ably represented the light one might expect to be found on a South Pacific island. There were no gimmicks, no flashy uses of fancy lights to distract from an otherwise pure show; the book, the lyrics, and the emotions of the actors, actresses, and audience members participating in the experience were allowed to stand on their own.
And oh, the emotion.
If Pittsinger’s “Some Enchanted Evening” failed to capture the heart of anyone in the theater, his “This Nearly Was Mine” didn’t. Full of heartbreak as de Becque laments that he could not even find paradise in paradise, Pittsinger’s rich baritone filled the Benedum in a way that not many people or voices can; upon the conclusion of the song, a three-minute applause erupted, once again bringing the show to a halting stop. (In a wonderful, wonderful way.)
It is somewhat unusual to have a theater filled to capacity feeling completely cohesive – there’s almost always that one person who can’t help but sneak a peek at his or her cell phone, or whisper something (not so quietly) to his or her neighbor – but that’s the atmosphere that existed in the theater on Sunday afternoon. Breaths were held, gasps emitted, and laughter rang out as one – something really special happened there that afternoon. A range of generations were represented in the seats, from young children perhaps being introduced to musical theater for the first time, to teenagers and young adults with their parents or by themselves, and many of the theater-goers were men who looked as though they perhaps served in World War II. Perhaps they even served in the South Pacific, and could see reflections of themselves in the characters in front of them. For them, this was more than an afternoon of theater.
This was an afternoon that perhaps represented part of their lives, and as the curtain closed on the stage at the end of the show, another portion of Michener’s novel appeared, likening those of The Greatest Generation to the men who served in the Civil War – soon, their battles would seem as long-ago as those that pitted the North against the South, and the only way to keep them from disappearing completely would be to continue to talk about them.
Rodgers and Hammerstein took advantage of that opportunity in 1949. We have continued to take that opportunity each time we revive, or go to see, South Pacific. Lincoln Center Theater’s most recent revival is something to be seen – not only for its beauty, and spectacular rendering of a classic piece of Broadway history, but to pay homage and much-due respect to those who lived it. Timely, with a wonderful blend of humor, drama, romance, and tragedy, the National Tour of South Pacific is something not to be missed.