Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific might seem a tough sell in a politically correct climate; though the musical famously (and laudably) tackles race as a central motif —particularly in the anti-prejudice song “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”— the story itself flirts with some troubling ethnic characterizations, especially of the ruthless indigenous matriarch Bloody Mary. (Can you imagine the outrage if two New Zealand-based artists wrote a musical called South Texas and created the same mercenary figure from San Antonian women? Egads.) Furthermore, the liaison between a dashing Marine, Lieutenant Cable, and a young Tonkinese girl seems less a romance than statutory rape, and it beggars credulity that the pair are mutually in love: we discover, in fact, that the pair can’t even converse, whether in “Happy Talk” or recriminating talk. So Cable’s balladic “Younger than Springtime” lauds the exotic Liat’s youthfulness and lips and softness, but can’t properly evaluate, say, Liat’s thoughts on wartime economics, or the ethics of being pimped out to a white guy. (Liat speaks only a few lines in the whole three-hour production.) Faced with such intractable problems in the source material, what’s a director to do?
Director Bartlett Sher’s solution — and it’s a good one — is to treat the musical like an opera and run with it: Nobody would ever praise Madame Butterfly or Turandot for their ethnographic sensitivity, but the operas are worth remounting because of other virtues (principally, but not always, musical ones). And so it goes with South Pacific, with its gorgeous score, and — in Lincoln Center’s touring production — handsome set and sensitively conducted orchestra. It’s a throwback, in a sense, to ye Grande Olde Days of the American Musical, before pesky budget cuts and even peskier irony. What you see is what you get.
And at Tuesday evening’s performance, I liked what I saw: Carmen Cusack makes for a plucky Ensign Nellie Forbush, the cutest little racist you ever did see; Rod Gilfry sings the role of Emile de Becque with the operatic grandeur the role requires; and Anderson Davis turns in a surprisingly surly but tuneful Lt. Cable. Christopher Gattelli’s musical staging offers some real pleasures, including the famous ode to boyfriend and dandruff troubles, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair.” And Matthew Saldivar provides welcome comic relief — if not a particularly lovely singing voice — as Luther Billis, resident gadfly and entrepreneur.
Though largely presenting the musical as straightforward, Sher does have a few tricks up his sleeve: A silent trio of African-American servicemen provides effective counterpoint to selected musical numbers — they remain segregated off stage and on. And the absolute high point of the production lands towards the end of the second act, with an affecting reprise of “Honey Bun”: a daffy, bright show tune now wedded to a grim new staging in the sepia-toned theater of war.
So: This is an excellent production of an imperfect musical, one that highlights the travails of star- and race-crossed lovers in the waning days of WWII. I refuse to end with an easy pun about having an enchanted evening, however; better to say that I left on a Bali high.
Thomas Jenkins is the Associate Professor and Chair of Classical Studies at Trinity University