Friday 31 July 2009

South Pacific: A Revised Opinion

Of all the shows currently on Broadway, and for Broadway pickings are surprisingly thin this summer, the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific was the one I was most ambivalent about going to see. I previously saw it in Trevor Nunn's revival at the National and thought it was very second rate (indeed my main recollection is of wanting to scream when we got to the fourth reprise of 'Some Enchanted Evening'). However, ever since I first mentioned this to my wife, she has insisted that I had not seen a really good production, that the show is significant in the history of musicals, and that Sondheim could never have written his shows had this foundation not existed. Last night duly found me at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. The verdict: this show deserves five stars for everything, except the book, music and lyrics (particularly the music and lyrics).

The first thing which Bartlett Sher's revival makes blindingly clear, and which it is equally clear that Nunn and his team completely failed to grasp, is that this is a through composed musical, and that you therefore have to treat each musical number as an integral part of the narrative pushing along both story and character development. Far more so than in many musicals, each number requires a very detailed acting performance, and each reprise must be differentiated, often subtly, from the previous one in order to make its point. Sher does what all directors should do, and so often fail to. He has clearly thought all the time about how to position his actors on the stage, how they are relating to each other, so that the show is full of movements of great subtlety. Indeed, one of the most powerful moments in the show comes at the very end when Emile de Becque returns safely to Nellie and she is so overcome that she cannot move, remaining for long moments seated with her back to him.

This kind of directorial detail only works because Sher has assembled an extraordinary cast. According to my wife who saw it when it originally opened, we now have a replacement Nellie Forbush (Laura Osnes) and a replacement Joseph Cable (Andrew Samonsky). Sometimes replacements can sink a production. This is absolutely not the case here, indeed, so superb are their performances it is hard to believe that they could have been bettered by the originals. Laura Osnes, in particular, really convinces (unlike the rather two dimensional performance of the part which is my recollection of the London revival) as the southern girl increasingly out of her depth in this unfamiliar world. Both their reactions to the prospect of racially mixed relationships (the centre of the plot) succeed far more than Nunn's performers did in putting flesh on the bones of what I still think is a somewhat weak plot. Equally fine is Paulo Szot as Emile de Becque, who has acting ability beyond what one normally associates with opera singers and who successfully brings across the hothouse, slightly other-worldly quality of Pacific French plantation life. And of course he can really sing too. These performances by themselves would rate this show very highly, but this is also probably one of the finest ensembles I have seen in the theatre, and one which deserves the more credit because, to my mind, several of these characters naturally fall into caricature because of the nature of the script. This is a particular problem in the case of Bloody Mary (Loretta Ables Sayre) who was yet another in the litany of aspects of the piece in the Nunn London production who failed to come over at all. Here her money making bragadoccio has an element of desperation to it, her attempts to cast spells over Cable in 'Bali Ha'i' and 'Happy Talk' are too insistent and consequently hollow, and her broken shuffle off the stage when it becomes apparent that Cable is dead and with it her dream for a better life for her daughter is haunting. Similarly, Danny Burstein skilfully reveals that the scheming Luther Billis has a tender heart, again giving his camp show number with Nellie ('Honey Bun') and the embrace she gives him afterwards a striking poignancy. I was glad to discover that both performers had been nominated for Best Supporting Tony Awards – a fine piece of discernment on the part of the committee. Before leaving the fine cast, I also want to give out a salute to Capt Brackett (Murphy Guyer) and Commander Harbison (Sean Cullen) who again give finally rounded characterisations of what could be two quite thankless roles.

Finally, as far as the production is concerned we have music and staging. Again, the staging decisions showcase how much Sher has got inside the mind of this production, in stark contrast to Nunn. Nunn's production was ridiculously overblown, with jeeps whizzing about and as I recall lots of unnecessary use of the famous drum revolve – all of which it now seems to me was a diversionary tactic on the part of Nunn to disguise the fact that having taken on the direction of the musical he really didn't understand the beast with which he was dealing. Sher has all the necessary set (the Billis laundary, the showers, de Becque's luxurious plantation house) but he never loses sight of the vastness of the Pacific world in which all this is stranded. The trip to Balai Ha'i takes place on an almost completely bare, subtly lit stage, and at the end there is nothing but the bare boards and the empty sky. Most telling, in comparison to Nunn, is Sher's decision on how to deal with the death of Cable. Nunn decided we needed to see Cable and de Becque as they wander around the island, sending their messages back to HQ. In this production the whole sequence takes place in the Captain's office, we hear only de Becque's voice over the radio. The audience is consequently placed in the same ghastly waiting state as the officers and Nellie Forbush. We can only imagine the kind of places the two scouts find themselves in, we can only imagine what Cable has endured in the three days between his wounding and his death. Against all the melodramatic odds, de Becque's crackling voice announcing Cable's death does pull the heart strings. Finally, we have a 30 piece band beneath retractable staging who get their moment in the sun in the overture and entracte and who make the best case that can possibly be made for the score.

And this brings us back to where we came in. Somehow, for me, there is still something about this show that doesn't quite satisfy, and after a great deal of thought I think it does come down to the lyrics and the music. The trouble it seems to me is this. Rodgers and Hammerstein were trying to tell what is actually a rather stark story about racial prejudice, and their style gets in the way. The bite is too much in the book, not enough in the often rather twee lyrics and lush romantic music. I realise this is clearly a minority view, but I can only report that frequently in the second act the dialogue would build up the emotional tension, and the musical number would leach it away. Yet, I think perhaps this really is a case of accepting a show for what it is. Sondheim started out working for Hammerstein, and, having seen this production, I can really see that you needed this kind of show for Sondheim to be able to write his shows. It is a show limited by the style of its authors, and by the time it was written, and it would be a mistake (and was in the London publicity) to try to imply this is a searing indictment of racial prejudice. But it is possible to see from this revival how challenging raising these issues even within the warm musical world of Rodgers and Hammerstein must have been in 1949. As such this is an important milestone in musical theatre which, when presented with production and performances as 5 star as this fully deserves a revival.

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