Escape to South Pacific


Once upon a time in the 1940s and '50s they wrote truly great musicals in America, and Rogers and Hammerstein's South Pacific is one of them. From the moment the Lincoln Center orchestra strikes up the overture, a mood of lush romance and wonder settles upon the theatre. The music is exquisite. And this production lives up to the high level set by the very talented composer and lyricist. Somehow it is just the right moment for a revival of this 1949 classic musical. Yes, it is set in the South Pacific Theater during World War II, but it's not the relevance to our day that makes it work. It's rather more the irrelevance, the totally different mood from our times. It is sad in places, but not cynical. Concepts such as bravery and sacrifice are not yet mired in the big-lie culture of the past thirty years. The characters are smart and witty, and -- in the case of the heroine Ensign Nellie Forbush -- innocent and romantic. But they are not cartoon characters. They are full, and rich, and complex in ways we don't often see today in mainstream American culture. Decades of television and second-rate films have lowered both our expectations and the artistic product.

The romantic leads -- Kelli O'Hara as Nellie, and Paulo Szot as French plantation owner Emile de Becque project a compelling chemistry. They look at each other and we believe they are falling in love, so that when they sing of it -- in such classic songs as "Some Enchanted Evening" or "This Nearly Was Mine" -- we are ravished by their voices and their emotions. So often, for me, contemporary musicals evoke a false lively interaction between over-acting singers and dancers. Or in the case of opera, the voices are great, but the performances demand large doses of suspending one's disbelief.

In South Pacific what we get is the power of opera with the intimacy of dramatic theatre. It is quite rare and stunning, and the audience responded with heartfelt spontaneous applause the night I went. Bartlett Sher has directed the cast to play with full-out commitment. Scene after scene comes alive with characters who move us from laughter to tears and back again to laughter. These people are just a little larger than life, as it should be in art.

Bloody Mary, the greedy capitalist islander, hawks both grass skirts and her sixteen-year-old daughter. Loretta Ables Sayre plays her with roguish gusto and yet we sense the more sympathetic mother underneath the surface bravado. Like Brecht's Mother Courage, she has to survive the rigors of wartime any way she can. It's in her story and in the engrained racism of several characters that the play script (based on two short stories by James Michener) goes beyond the sentimental into the dark seriousness that edges great art.

Sher has wisely and subtly directed the sailors, who form a lively group of singing and dancing characters, not to mix up the races, so that the three black men in the group are generally off by themselves, on the edges of a scene, observing. And the major issue between Nellie and Emile, who are clearly in love, is the fact that he was married to an island woman who died, and he had two children by her. It is their half-breed status that seems to disturb Nellie, even though she finds them lovely. A Navy nurse from Arkansas, she is embarrassed by her view, and by her distaste at the thought of his dead wife, but she nonetheless breaks off with him over this cultural and emotional impasse. Of course, being the heroine, Nellie will break free of her prejudice and Emile will prove himself a worthy mate when he leads a dangerous spying mission behind enemy lines to help the U.S. troops.

I rarely recommend theatre as a means of escape. That has always struck me as a rather trivial approach to a serious art. But in this case, it is our escape from the seaminess of the present political moment that makes this show so satisfying. For almost three hours one gets to experience an earlier time, a paradise, a deeply committed love, and marvelous singing. It is like escaping to Bali Ha'i, "your own special island" -- here sincerity is still possible, and people treat each other decently. It may be quite sentimental towards the end, and patriotic in ways that no longer make sense, but it is emotionally liberating. I saw a number of audience members with tears in their eyes at the curtain, and I too was misty-eyed. I wanted it to go on for another two or three hours.

South Pacific is playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street, NY NY.