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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
For many of us old-timers the small town American nurse and mysteriously glamorous plantation owner whose eyes locked and held "across a crowded room" were pixie Mary Martin and and opera baritone Ezio Pinza. Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi played Ensign Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque in the movie. That wasn't as good as the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning stage musical (1949-54, 1,925 performances), but it did include a song, "My Girl Back Home" omitted on stage but happily restored in Mr. Sher's new production.
I've been fortunate to see some very handsome and well sung regional productions, with the enduring power of the book and music sustaining even modest stagecraft and smaller, less starry casts. But this no expense spared, fresh yet true to the original South Pacific has been way overdue and lays to rest concerns that a heroine raised and taught in Little Rock "to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made" would come across as politically outré and unsympathetic. With the country once again at war, a bi-racial candidate for President, this musical plea for tolerance is a fitting slice of our history as a country willing to fight for freedom abroad even while struggling with the fallout of our homegrown racial prejudices.
The was adapted by Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan from James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific. It's a triple drama. The main plot revolves around a love-at-first sight romance between a sophisticated older man and a naive, fresh-faced young American. A subsidiary romance features a Princeton educated officer and a beautiful native girl . Inborn prejudice is the snake in the idyllic island of hope known as Bali h'ai. And since no self-respecting romance of that era can thrive without adventure, there's a mission than imperils both romantic leads, and leads to an at once sad and happy ending (Lt. Cable dies, deBeque survives and Nellie becomes color blind).
I mentioned the orchestra at the top of this review because it is truly a major star and that floor rolled back to spotlight the musicians is an inspired tribute. But the orchestra and the lovely and, for a change, gently and pleasingly amplified music are just one treat in a show stuffed to the brim with delights.
Just reading through the list of musical numbers will start the musical recording machine inside your head playing the score and at least some of the lyrics of this hit parade of funny, sad and romantic tunes. But contrary to the cliche, familiarity breeds fresh appreciation, especially when the beloved favorites are so beautifully interpreted.
The tall, dark and handsome Paulo Szot offers that rare thrill of seeing a star born. The Brazilian opera star is younger (38), slimmer and more handsome than Ezio Pinza. He is a debonair, charming and, yes, touching Emile. Oh, and that sublime baritone! No wonder the audience goes wild when he sings "This Nearly Was Mine."
As the show's younger hero, Matthew Morrison who, like O'Hara worked with Sher in Light in the Piazza, brings a fine voice and equally fine physique to the role of Lt. Cable. Besides a moving rendition of the show's thematic signature song "You've Got to be Carefully Taught," Morrison also shines with "Younger Than Springtime " and the restored "My Girl Back Home."
Since this is a show that has it all, bravo also to the colorful portraits of the subsidiary characters like Danny Burstein's Luther Billis, Loretta Ables Sayre's Bloody Mary, Sean Cullen's Cmdr. William Harbison. Having it all, of course also means dancing as well as singing, so cheers too for Chrstopher Gattelli's fun staging of numbers like "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame", and "Honey Bun."
The folks at Lincoln Center are now listing this as an open-ended run. Here's hoping that O'Hara and Szotz and Morrison will take care of their voices to sustain the punishing 8-show a week run. And here's hoping someone is writing a great new musical to insure Mr. Szot's future as a treasure of the musical theater as well as the operatic stage.
Postscript: When you go to Lincoln Center, be sure to pick up a copy of the even more than usually informative Lincoln Center Theater Review. The entire issue is devoted to South Pacific and makes for fascinating background reading.
The Little Mermaid
Shrek The Musical
The Playbill Broadway YearBook
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide