December 23, 2010 | by Patrick Folliard
‘Pacific’ overtures dazzle

‘South Pacific’

Through Jan. 16

The Kennedy Center

$39-$150

202-467-4600

Anderson Davis and Sumie Maeda in 'South Pacific,' playing now at the Kennedy Center. (Photo by Peter Coombs)

Seeing – and more importantly hearing — the touring production of Bartlett Sher’s celebrated revival of “South Pacific” at the Kennedy Center Opera House makes it easy to understand why the seminal Rodgers and Hammerstein musical originally set Broadway on its ear in 1949. Its glorious standard-filled score remains a triumph.

From the instant the overture (played by a sumptuous 26-piece orchestra conducted by Lawrence Goldberg) begins, the show is a tingly musical treat. Especially fine moments include baritone David Pittsinger’s “Some Enchanted Evening” and Jodi Kimura as mercenary Bloody Mary delivering a surprisingly soulful and poignant “Bali Ha’i.” And, of course, a rousing group number such as “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” performed by a strong ensemble of Seabeas, is hummed long after leaving the theater.

Adapted by Hammerstein and original director Joshua Logan from James A. Michener’s collection of short stories, “South Pacific” follows the cross-cultural love affairs of two young Americans stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. While Navy nurse Nellie Forbush (the excellent Carmen Cusack) cautiously falls in love with an alluring French planter Emile de Beque (Pittsinger), Marine pilot Joe Cable (handsome Anderson Davis) becomes hastily involved with a young native girl, Liat (Sumie Maeda).

Unlike the easily forgotten movie version starring Mitzi Gaynor as Nellie (Doris Day was considered for the part but unfortunately wasn’t available), this Tony Award-winning production is well acted and sensitively realized. The rocky romance between Nellie and Emile unfolds believably, as does the transformation of the small town girl’s beliefs. Director Sher offers a surprisingly sincere-yet-relevant glimpse into a distant time and place, keeping in mind the liberal authors’ themes of racial inequality. His direction calls for the three African-American sailors in the company keep apart from their white counterparts.

During a quiet moment with Emile, Nellie shares that she joined the service to see the world, to learn how other people live, and indeed she does. Not only is the Little Rock-born belle exposed to Navy life and exotic climes far from home, but she also falls in love with a debonair Frenchman. And while sipping Champagne with a handsome ex-pat is a thrill, Nellie is thrown for a loop when she learns that the two cute “colored” kids running around her intended’s expansive home belong to him and not the butler. Nellie may have longed to broaden her horizons, but as a product of the segregated south, she can’t accept that Emile has had a relationship with a native woman.

Despite her limitations, Nellie isn’t a bad egg at all (and Cusack’s low-key charm makes her even more likable): Audiences can’t help but root for the self-described cock-eyed optimist, hoping – and somehow knowing — that Nellie will wake up and get past her prejudices.

On the other hand, Joe Cable’s tropical romance with Liat reeks of ill-fatedness from the start. It’s hard to imagine the Princeton grad taking his new “Younger Than Springtime” Polynesian girlfriend home to his postwar Philadelphia mainline folks.

Though Pittsinger is not Paolo Szot (the heartthrob who opened the revival in New York and can be seen in the show’s commercials currently running on local TV), he is excellent as the sexy and ultimately heroic Emile. He acts well and sings like a dream. The production is visually pleasing as well: Michael Yeargan’s Tony Award-winning set consists primarily of an impossibly expansive ever-changing sea and sky, masterfully lit by Donald Holder.

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