A Most Enchanted Evening

Well, my whirlwind week of theatre has come to an end. I have had the unusual privilege of book-ending this week-long extravaganza with two separate opening night performances. A week ago it was Patti LuPone’s ferocious turn in Gypsy. This time, it’s the sumptuous majesty that is South Pacific, one of the most romantic scores ever composed, returning in its first ever Broadway revival. In a season of stellar revivals, this one manages to be the crowning achievement. In fact, right here and right now, I say that it deserves the Tony for Best Musical Revival.

You see, I started out appreciating musical theatre in part because of Rodgers and Hammerstein. My father, not much for film or television, especially theatre (and their celebrities), made a notable exception with various film adaptations of R&H works. Every year during that annual telecast of The Sound of Music, I would get to watch it. And every year until I was 11, I was sent to bed before it was finished.

Anyway, my father’s favorite film remained SOM, though occasionally I caught a glimpse of another musical on TV… as a very young child, I thought it was a specifically a war film, till I caught a rather ugly island woman who kept changing colors burst into song about a “Valley High” or something. (I was five). I would learn with the 1995 release of The Sound of Movies hosted by Shirley Jones on A&E that there was more to this songwriting team than Julie Andrews twirling on an alp. I became fascinated to learn that most were originally stage musicals, something that didn’t really hit home till later, and I became obsessed with film musicals, an obsession that would transplant itself into the American musical theatre.

South Pacific would maintain its popularity in my household. My father became a Marine in 1958, the year the film was released – and anything military was de rigeur when it came to his television programming. South Pacific, for me, is what I consider to be the best of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. Now, I loves me some Dick and Oscar, but this earns the title of best of the best. The film is a less-than-stellar adaptation; what with those color filters (which didn’t bother me till I learned cynicism and naturalism) and some underwhelming performances. That didn’t stop me from seeking out Lumahai Beach on Kauai nine years ago when on vacation. And yes, that’s where Mitzi Gaynor washed Rossano Brazzi out of her hair.

For what it’s worth, the original production opened April 7, 1949 at the Majestic Theatre. Co-librettist Josh Logan directed. Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza were the stars. They were supported by Juanita Hall, Myron McCormick and William Tabbert. WWII was only four years removed. The show walked away with the hearts of the critics and audiences. Its success also included a rare Pulitzer Prize win for a musical (only the second up to that point) and 9 Tony Awards (the original South Pacific is the only production – play or musical – to have swept all four acting categories). The original cast album sold many, many copies. Everyone fell in love with “Some Enchanted Evening,” the breakout success of the score. It ran in NY until 1954, racking up 1925 performances. It would play two successful years in London as well, starring Martin and Wilbur Evans. The film would come in 1958. Mixed critical reception didn’t stop the film from becoming a blockbuster.

The musical called attention to racial prejudice and injustice with its two parallel love stories, culled from the vibrant short stories of James Michener, Tales of the South Pacific (which, if you haven’t read it, do, Mr. Michener has a poetic lyricism in his prose). On one hand you have Emile de Becque, worldly and successful plantation owner romancing the hick Arkansan Nellie Forbush. On the other, the upper class Main Liner Joe Cable finds himself torn between his social station and his undying love for the Tonkinese Liat. Throw in colorful secondary situations, mostly Billis and his laundry, shower and souvenir racket, and the gravity of a country battling one of the most important wars in its history and you’ve got a full plate.

The show has received numerous revivals in London, a terrible TV remake starring Glenn Close (but no cigar…) and has become a staple of high school and community theatres worldwide. However, the new production that opened tonight at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre marks the first Broadway revival of this acclaimed masterpiece. Not that the show hasn’t been seen in NY: there was an acclaimed Musicals of Lincoln Center engagement in 1967 starring Florence Henderson (recently released on CD) and was presented by the NYCO in 1987 (both productions played the NY State Theatre). I was there in 2005 for the concert at Carnegie Hall with Reba McEntire and Brian Stokes Mitchell.

This revival is without a doubt one of the most rapturous evenings I’ve ever spent in a theatre, especially in terms of a musical revival. No expense was spared in transforming the immense stage of the Vivian Beaumont into a tropical paradise. What is one of the most effective orchestrations in musical theatre (by the late, great Robert Russell Bennett) is on full display here – in a rare departure from the norm, there are 30 players in the pit. Never have I been so moved by the thrilling nuance of a Broadway orchestra, the harp, the strings, the brass, the winds, come together for a lush three hour display of emotion and grandeur.

One of the highlights of the show was the presentation of the orchestra itself. During the lengthy overture (where, for once, people didn’t talk and paid adamant attention) the stage pulled back to reveal the orchestra conducted by Ted Sperling, in tie and tails, after which the orchestra took their call. The audience went complete nuts over the whole affair. The orchestra was revealed during the act one finale, and each section got a chance to stand for the toe-tapping entr’acte. We were also privileged to see them one more time after the curtain call.

The casting couldn’t have been more impeccable. There are forty (!) actors in the production, led by Kelli O’Hara, who it seems as we are learning each year, can pretty much do anything. Here she inhabits Nellie Forbush, the cock-eyed optimist and knucklehead, but with more thought and a keen awareness of the sobering nature of her war-time duties. Paulo Szot is Emile de Becque, the enigmatic and virile French planter, with whom she falls in love; equally sizable in voice and presence. His haunting treatise on the pain of lost love, “This Nearly Was Mine,” often woefully overlooked due to the popularity of “Some Enchanted Evening”, brought the proceedings to a screeching halt as the audience cheered. Matthew Morrison brings a new shades of darkness and upper class cockiness to Lt. Joe Cable, only to make his tragic romance even more prescient than ever. His voice also sounds more legit than I’ve ever heard him before. Loretta Ables Sayre is Bloody Mary, played for character and not for laughs, though she earns them. Never before have I felt that Mary had her daughter’s best interest in mind, as opposed to coming across like an unscrupulous madam. Danny Burstein as Luther Billis channeled Bert Lahr. The ladies and gentlemen of the ensemble were all spectacular.

Bartlett Sher has once again proved himself to be one of the most spectacular theatre directors working today. He keeps his productions honest, naturalistic and never boring. He guides the cinematic nature of the score with precision and depth, moving seamlessly from one scene into the next, all the while raising the expectations of revivals from the Golden Age. The themes are never rammed down our throats, the singing is a natural emotional extension of character and plot and in a departure from what has become the norm, we are not blasted out of our seats by highly ill-advise pop singing and over-amplification. There is one notable subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) touch in that the black soldiers are segregated from the white, which creates secondary friction during several of the “in-one” moments that assist the scene changes. It’s a testament to Lincoln Center that they trusted the work of Rodgers, Hammerstein and Logan, paying it homage while finding new colors for the 21st century (and not feeling the need to completely overhaul the work). It may be a period piece, but the new revival makes it more timeless than ever before.

I may have shifted in my sensibilities as I’ve gotten older. My adoration of Rodgers and Hammerstein made way for the rueful irony of Sondheim’s sophistication. I’ve been more akin to complex and occasionally pretentious works that tend to challenge rather than entertain (though usually they do both). I’ve never been able to completely grasp it when people dismiss the musical, for whatever reason. Granted, the second act may not be as polished as the first (not many Golden Age shows have that going for them), but Sher and his cast have managed to make the issues of racial prejudice and bigotry as real as possible, especially since (unfortunately) these themes still play a major role in our society today. What’s more important is that this revival doesn’t play as a museum piece. South Pacific, with its music and its lyrics and its everlasting characters are more alive and palpable than ever before. And in this new staging, we are reminded of where we’ve been, where we are and where we’ve yet to go.

Peter Filichia responded to my excited e-mail regarding my opening night ticket: “And congrats on that SOUTH PACIFIC ticket. I hope that the writers of today’s musicals are all there and then apologize to New York immediately following.”

I may have known South Pacific for years, but never before has it moved me to tears. Long may it run.

On a side note: Angela Lansbury, Henry and Mary Rodgers Guettel, Tommy Tune, Alice Playten, Frank Rich, James Naughton, William Finn, Jack O’Brien, Phyllis Newman and Rebecca Luker were among the first nighters that I saw.