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South Pacific (review)

From: Theatre Journal
Volume 61, Number 2, May 2009
pp. 299-301 | 10.1353/tj.0.0197

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When Rodgers and Hammerstein premiered South Pacific, in a landmark 1949 production starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, critics and audiences praised the musical for its original songs, charismatic casting, and historical relevancy. South Pacific went on to win nine Tony Awards including Best Musical, and it was awarded the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The musical introduced several songs that are now standards of the American songbook including "Some Enchanted Evening," "Younger than Springtime," and "A Wonderful Guy." Based on selected stories from James Michener's Pulitzer Prize–winning collection Tales of the South Pacific, the musical responded directly to World War II; it resonated with audiences to such a degree that it ran on Broadway for nearly five years. Surprisingly, the current production at Lincoln Center, superbly helmed by Bartlett Sher, is its first Broadway revival.

Sher's production is at once an intelligent archival tribute to a past moment in American cultural history—a time when the nation was struggling with mounting racial tensions and increasing global militarization—and an emotionally moving testament to the vitality of American musical theatre. And yet the production's reverence for the original material and historical context is anything but nostalgic. As in the best of any revival, the current South Pacific cites the original without succumbing to it. Rather, audiences are invited to consider our own contemporary moment, a time when the country remains at war and the issue of race continues to haunt the nation. Sher's emphasis on the historical context manifested itself throughout the production, from music to design to casting; he also subtly called attention to the musical's political resonance throughout his staging. But it would be a mistake to imagine this revival as mainly a dialogue on history and politics; the production was committed unabashedly to highlighting South Pacific's theatricality. In spite of some textual limitations, these three elements—history, politics, performance—worked together seamlessly to invigorate the musical for contemporary audiences.

South Pacific tells the story of Ensign Nellie For-bush (Kelli O'Hara), a self-described "cockeyed optimist" from Little Rock, Arkansas, who is stationed on a small island in the South Pacific during World War II. She soon falls in love with the charismatic Emile de Becque (Paulo Szot), a French plantation owner who for political reasons has settled on the island. The couple's courtship is mirrored by another set of lovers, the handsome Lt. Joe Cable from Philadelphia (Matthew Morrison), who falls in love with Liat (Li Jun Li), the youthful daughter of Bloody Mary (Loretta Ables Sayre), an indigenous woman who profits from the war by selling local trinkets to the American sailors and nurses inhabiting the island.

As the musical unfolds, Nellie learns that Emile is a widower raising two biracial children. When Emile explains that their mother was a native islander, Nellie's response is to flee. Her racism proves to be the obstacle she must overcome—or, in the lexicon of the musical, "unlearn"—if she is to allow herself to become involved with Emile. Cable also struggles with his shame for having fallen for Liat. His tortured confusion is rendered musically in the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught"—so controversial in its indictment of the legacies of racism that pressure from the producers to cut it forced Rodgers and Hammerstein to fight to keep it in the musical. In the end, Cable dies in his efforts to secure a neighboring island for the Western allies who are fighting the Japanese. Nellie, however, fearing that Emile might have perished in the same military operation, resolves to marry him if he returns safely. The plot is as much about the education of provincial white young Americans as it is about the larger war in which they and their story are embedded.

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Kelli O'Hara (Ensign Nellie Forbush) and Paulo Szot (Emile de Becque) in South Pacific. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Sher underscored the importance of the narrative, music, and historical context throughout the production. Immediately upon entering the theatre, the audience encountered the opening words of Michener's book projected above the stage: "I wish I could tell you...

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