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Friday, October 11, 2013

Enchanted Evening

From the Boards Dept.: I’m not much of a Rodgers and Hammerstein fan. I have trouble getting past the huge gobs of sentiment that tend to slather the stage. But I am in awe of the craftsmanship of their better shows, and, when the revival tour of “South Pacific” hit Proctors in Schenectady three years ago, I wrote about an excellent example of that.


Nine years after South Pacific’s Broadway debut came the movie, guaranteeing “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” would gain still more radio play—years and years of it, in fact, because in the 1950s, Broadway still fed the pop-song charts.

Matthew Saldivar and sailors.
Photo by Peter Coombs
Thus it was that these songs—not to mention “Bali Ha’i,” “A Wonderful Guy,” “This Nearly Was Mine” and “Younger Than Springtime”—were drummed into my young ears during my first decade of life, songs I never set out to learn but still, to a large extent, know by heart. Like so much to do with early childhood, they’re vaguely annoying.

That may explain why, until last week, I’ve had no exposure to the show from which they come. Director Bartlett Sher’s 2008 Broadway revival won so much acclaim—and seven Tony awards—that it quickly spawned a national tour. This is what landed at Proctors last week, and it was an impressively satisfying piece of work.

Drawing material from three of the short stories in James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, it centers on two unlikely romances played against the backdrop of a Seabee-occupied Pacific island in World War II. Characterizations are drawn in quick, bold strokes; the array of memorable songs does the rest of the work.

Expatriate Frenchman Emile de Becque was played in the original by Metropolitan Opera star Ezio Pinza, who cast a very long shadow. Rod Gilfry also has an opera background.

And Gilfry played De Becque in the classic opera park-and-bark style, which is no discredit: It’s what the role demands. He brought “Some Enchanted Evening” right down to the proscenium and bathed the audience in it. De Becque begins as a slightly shadowy character; by the time Gilfry brought his beautiful voice to act two’s stolid weeper “This Nearly Was Mine,” we knew the more complicated man.

The character of Nellie Forbush probably seemed much more forward-thinking 60 years ago, but she still cuts a dynamic figure in the hands of Carmen Cusack, who shrugged off the formidable shadow of Mary Martin with a portrayal that was vivacious and charming. A recent veteran of Wicked, she’s an excellent dancer and singer whose only distraction was the country twang she too often put into her numbers.

Forbush is the Arkansas-born nurse whose love for De Becque is shattered by the discovery that he has mixed-race children by a deceased wife, a dilemma addressed in the second act by the still-powerful song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” This is sung by the character of Joe Cable, a young Lieutenant who arrives on the island as part of dangerous undercover mission.

Anderson Davis ripped into the number with bitter authority, making it clear that this remains the heart of the show. His first-act love song “Younger Than Springtime” seemed a little hurried, but this one showed an actor in total control of his material.

Other standouts in the cast were Hawaii native (and Dallas transplant) Keala Settle as Bloody Mary, whose anthemic “Bali Ha’i” had a fresh urgency, and Matthew Salidvar as the contentious Luther Billis, who leads the sailors in a knockout “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame.”

When it premiered, South Pacific spoke to a generation of GIs who knew the story’s antecedents. Now it’s more of a museum piece, so director Bartlett Sher wisely emphasized characters over story and kept the production values high. It’s such a well-written piece that it rewards his efforts with compelling immediacy.

Christopher Gattelli put together dances that seemed to occupy a space twice as big as the Proctors stage and the large cast delivered with precision. The mark of a good ensemble number is the distinctive characterizations that the actors maintain; in a number like “Honey Bun,” everyone worked together and yet everyone was distinct.

The production was supported by a good-sized orchestra boasting many area players, all under the skilled conducting of Lawrence Goldberg.

I don’t suppose this show ever will be truly outdated until the racial issues it addresses are solved, so we probably can look forward to several more lifetimes of South Pacific productions.

South Pacific
Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, directed by Bartlett Sher. Proctors, April 14

Metroland Magazine, 22 April 2010

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