South Pacific is Stuck Like A Dope With A Thing Called Hope It Can’t Get Out of its Heart

carmen cusack as ensign nellie forbush 
photo by peter coombs
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s fourth musical collaboration, South Pacific, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950 and was the first of the famous duo’s shows to tackle issues of prejudice and intolerance as the driving mechanism in the relationship conflicts of both its secondary and primary characters. The Original Broadway Production opened at the Majestic Theatre on March 29th, 1949 and ran for almost five years after winning ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Libretto and all four acting awards. The first Broadway revival of South Pacific opened at Lincoln Centre’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre on April 3rd, 2008 and went on to win seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical Revival (2008). DanCap Productions brings the touring version of this production to the Four Seasons Centre here in Toronto where it will play until September 5th, 2010.
Visually, this production is a stunning one. Michael Yeargan’s sets blend perfectly with Donald Holder’s lighting design to breathtakingly magical effect, which thrusts the audience immediately into a world of vivid sunsets and the sweet glow of a winsome time gone by. The orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett are sweeping, like art painted on an invisible canvas, and the commanding intensity of both the musicians and the singers is intricately balanced to a degree that is rare for musicals in Toronto.
The challenge in staging a historical show such as South Pacific is that with time and drastic socio-political shifts in ideology that define the way contemporary audiences perceive the world, it is hard for older plays and musicals to reclaim their former immediacy. While Joshua Logan’s libretto, based on the short stories Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener, grapple with certain issues still pertinent to our society, a war in a foreign country and (perhaps even) issues surrounding interracial marriage for example, the signature idealism of Rodgers and Hammerstein, gives this musical a folksy charm and naive simplicity that roots it firmly in the past.
This means that for many audience members, South Pacific has the potential to be a lovely nostalgic escape into a lush, sentimental score and the cockeyed optimism that, in classic musical theatre, can overcome even death. As children of the theatre, I think that it is extremely valuable that we are given the opportunity to see such beautifully constructed, perfectly polished, living, breathing productions of theatre history that boast of such strongly beating hearts. It was with obvious care and precision that Bartlett Sher directed this production, and with gusto and pride that his actors bring this story to life.
Throughout their illustrious careers Rodgers and Hammerstein excelled particularly well in the construction of brilliant production numbers, and South Pacific includes a small slew of them. “Honey Bun” is crisply executed to hilarious effect and “There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame” gives the musical just the comic lift it needs due to the exuberance in the performances from the ensemble. Matthew Saldivar shines as the robust entrepreneur, Luther Billis, with an endearing heart of gold and comedic panache to spare. Jodi Kimura is simultaneously darkly amusing and disturbing as Bloody Mary, a Tonkinese merchant willing to sell her young daughter, Liat, into a better life. Anderson Davis is stoic and effortlessly charming as Lt. Joseph Cable, the young Princeton graduate who falls in love with Liat, but balks at the unthinkable reality of bringing her home with him to a family in Philadelphia who will doubtlessly see her only as Negro. Carmen Cusack is the very epitome of a Rodgers and Hammerstein ingénue as Nellie Forbush, a nurse from Arkansas who falls in love with an older Frenchman named Emil De Becque, and must confront her own racist limitations when she learns that he was previously married to a Polynesian and has two mixed race children, Ngana and Jerome, played with warmth by Christina Carrera and CJ Palma respectively. Cusack exudes joyful charisma in each of her scenes, but also manages to explore Nellie’s bigotry, her imperfect humanity, while keeping the audience firmly planted by her side.
There are some limitations to South Pacific that I think are intrinsic to the show itself, that could not be surmounted without overhauling nearly the entire production. Emil De Becque, played by Jason Howard, is written as a vague idealism, reminiscent of a stiff cardboard poster of a man singing reprises of one stunningly romantic ballad, rather than a unique individual bursting with his own personality. There is little Howard can do in this role but play to this convention, which can be quite alienating and almost absurd in its grandiloquence. Secondly, I found it impossible to become swept up in the intended romanticism of Lt. Cable and Liat’s relationship because my contemporary perception of the murky boundaries surrounding consensual sex and the fetishizing of a girl’s youth in connection to her sexuality kept distracting me from the love story that I know Rodgers and Hammerstein were intending to tell. In this way, it is clear that I was intellectualizing this aspect of the show in a way that would have been uncommon in the show’s original audience. Conversely, I feel that “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” Hammerstein’s torch song against intolerance, despite its inherent gentleness, still resonates beautifully with contemporary audiences and it has the ability to hold the theatre captive with the same impassioned profundity that it had sixty years ago.
In all, South Pacific, by contemporary standards, may be “as corny as Kansas in August,” but this production is also just as blissfully beautiful.

South Pacific plays at the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen Street West) until September 5th, 2010. For more information or to book your tickets please visit this website or call 416.644.3665.  

Leave a Reply