“I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands.” These are the opening words of James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel based on his experiences and observations in the U.S. Navy in World War II. They are printed on a large screen and are the first thing the audience sees as they enter the Fox Theatre ready to experience the legendary musical in its current run through Sunday, April 11.
For you history buffs, I’m writing these words on April 7; exactly 61 years ago today “South Pacific” opened on Broadway to unprecedented acclaim. It had a record-breaking run and had never been revived on Broadway until two years ago; and we reported on that for you in these pages in 2008: “The Lincoln Center revival is magnificent and beautiful…a must see for musical theatre fans. You are hooked from the moment the lush 30-piece orchestra begins the overture. The songs are supremely romantic (“Some Enchanted Evening,” “Wonderful Guy,” “Younger than Springtime,” “This Nearly Was Mine”) but also fun (“Bloody Mary,” “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Honey Bun” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”).”
Let’s stop a moment. The Atlanta audience (and it was huge—get tickets now) talked noisily right through the playing of that gorgeous overture. Really—how completely provincial. The orchestra was superb, dressed in tuxes (as they were in New York) to honor this timeless show and Broadway’s Golden Age, and people were yammering as though they were home and it was commercial time on “American Idol.” If I sound like a hopeless theatre snob, so be it. The overture is part of the performance, which we’ve all paid to see. Okay, now I feel better.
You may recall that the play (which also won the Pulitzer—rare for a musical) tells the story of two couples: Navy nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush (Carmen Cusack, an astonishingly gifted singer who played Elphaba in “Wicked’s” last visitation at the Fox) and French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Rod Gilfry, a Grammy-nominated baritone); and Marine Lt. Joe Cable (Anderson Davis, who sings the sublime “Younger Than Springtime”) and beautiful islander Liat (Sumie Maeda), daughter of the redoubtable Bloody Mary (Keala Settle), who sings “Bali Ha’i,” a haunting hymn of reaching for your dreams. My word, the hits just keep on coming, no?
“South Pacific” represents a high point in the storied careers of composer Richard Rogers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. What they achieved here, in what some call the finest American musical, is an almost mystical vision of romantic yearning, set against the all-too-real backdrop of World War II. Director Bartlett Sher deservedly won a Tony for the show, which faces and deals with the unquestioned racism of the time with power and compassion. Oh—the Fox is actually too big for live theatre: Any time you’re two miles from the stage you’re too far; but we’ve had this discussion before.
One more thing—the first act is flawless, as close to musical theatre perfection as you’ll come. Act II gets a little long, partly because our computer age is impatient with old-fashioned wartime radio communication. But who cares? This is a rare gem of a show. Go and fall in love.