Posted by: operatheaterink | July 24, 2010

‘South Pacific’, Center Theatre Group, July 17, 2010

Wherever You Live, Go See ‘South Pacific.’

Carmen Cusack as Nellie and David Pittsinger as Emile

Carmen Cusack as Nellie and David Pittsinger as Emile

JULY 17, 2010

By Carol Jean Delmar

“South Pacific” with Paulo Szot and Kelli O’Hara has been a major success on Broadway with seven Tony Awards to its credit, including best musical revival and best actor nods for Szot and the producers. The touring company began its run in Los Angeles in June with two operatic star baritones portraying Emile de Becque at the Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre. Although I’d read excellent reviews of Rod Gilfry’s Emile, I felt very fortunate to have seen and heard David Pittsinger in the role created in 1949 by Ezio Pinza.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find many reviews of Pittsinger’s portrayal, so I didn’t know what to expect. I prepared myself to be disappointed. And then low-and-behold, I was in paradise. Being an opera critic, I’d reviewed Pittsinger as the Count in LA Opera’s “Marriage of Figaro,” in “La Rondine” and as the Count des Grieux in “Manon.” I knew that he could sing; but could he exude the mature French charm of plantation owner Emile de Becque? Could he connect with the pert Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas – Nellie Forbush? Could the two of them warm my heart?

Well, they did. A few times I felt the ol’ lump in the throat on the verge of tears syndrome. And they also made me think.

Centered on the lives of two couples on two South Pacific islands during World War II, this Bartlett Sher-staged Lincoln Center Theater production included material from the original book that illuminated the racial prejudices which threatened the happiness of these two couples. Nellie couldn’t come to terms with Emile’s deceased Polynesian wife and two children; and Lt. Joseph Cable couldn’t come to terms with his love for and desire to marry Bloody Mary’s beautiful, delicate daughter, Liat. One of the most enlightening songs of the score was Cable’s “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” which made the lights turn on in my head as I reflected upon the bigotry in the world today and where it came from.

The result was a deep sadness when Cable, who finally got his priorities straight, was killed; and a second round of pathos came over me when Nellie overcame her prejudices and opened up her heart to Emile’s children and Emile.

Coming to terms with the racial issue allowed the actors to fully develop their characters so that they became multifaceted beings. Their complicated multilayered inner selves enabled the audience to connect to them and feel, which for me is the ultimate purpose of theater.

Being the critic that I am, I can be judgmental. I could hear when Anderson Davis (Cable) wasn’t supporting his high tones (the latter part of “Younger Than Springtime”) and when Carmen Cusak (Nellie) wasn’t quite bridging her lower register with her top. But ultimately, I didn’t care. Their pleasing voices pleased me, and their heartfelt performances far outweighed the few minor flaws they will no doubt iron out in the future.

Keala Settle’s portrayal of the robust Tonkinese peddler Bloody Mary lacked clarity. There was something mushy about it. Her enunciation was at times unintelligible; her tones didn’t have ping and didn’t swell when they should have, and her “Bali Ha’i” wasn’t energizing.

Matthew Saldivar played the well-meaning American sailor Luther Billis with color and flair, drawing our attention to him during his noteworthy “There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame.” His phrasing, comedic timing and movement were excellent although his long tonal accents sometimes sounded foreign and somehow out of place.

Sumie Maeda as Liat was adorable, delicate and fragile during “Happy Talk,” but I kept waiting for more action and was terribly relieved when she started moving. Nothing could compare to France Nuyen’s finger-and-hand pantomime in the film version. Maybe Sher didn’t want to duplicate it. Still, something was missing, which was partially due to Settle’s lack of vocal clarity.

CJ Palma and Christina Carrera were sweet as Emile’s children, especially when singing “Dites-Moi.”

Michael Yeargan’s sets were appropriate. Nothing too monumental caught my eye, which is still far superior to a modern monstrosity that would have taken focus away from the characters and the story line. A little sprucing up might have been in order.

The band unfortunately sounded recorded and tinny, but then I’m accustomed to the tonal resonances of a larger classical music orchestra. I enjoyed the choreography which was a cross between realistic action and dance.  A little more true dance might have been warranted. The production numbers simply weren’t grand enough.

To conclude where I first began when mentioning the legendary Ezio Pinza — Pinza, Rossano Brazzi, Mary Martin and Mitzi Gaynor charmed us and remain role models for the Emiles and Nellies today. Cusak reminded me of Martin although her “Cockeyed Optimist” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” were uniquely hers. Pittsinger’s Emile had charm, strength and integrity with a reserved, secure, authoritative resolve to achieve whatever he desired. His “Some Enchanted Evening” was vocal chocolate. His ”This Nearly Was Mine” was a goosebump showstopper.

After performances at the Ahmanson Theatre in LA, the touring company is performing in Denver, Portland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Newark, Fort Myers, Cleveland and Washington, DC, among other cities. I had such a memorable evening listening to the wonderful Rodgers and Hammerstein score that I may go to see the show again in October when it comes to Costa Mesa. But I was spoiled with this Nellie and especially with Pittsinger’s Emile. I don’t want to be disappointed with another cast. That’s the fun of theater, though — different voices, different interpretations!

I guess that what I’m trying to say about this Emile and Nellie is that “This promise of paradise — This nearly was mine!”

A Lincoln Center Theater production at the Ahmanson Theatre, LA
Adapted from the novel “Tales of the South Pacific” by James A. Michener
Book: Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Executive Producer: Seth C. Wenig
Director: Bartlett Sher
Music Director: Ted Sperling
Conductor: Lawrence Goldberg
Musical Staging: Christopher Gattelli
Sets: Michael Yeargan
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Costumes: Catherine Zuber
Sound Design: Scott Lehrer
Orchestrations: Robert Russell Bennett
Producers: Bob Boyett, NETworks Presentations LLC, Bob Bartner/Howard Panter for Ambassador Theatre Group, Roger Berlind, Thomas L. Miller

The Lincoln Center Theater production remains at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York through August.