Before heading to South Pacific, I took a Friday morning excursion to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (better known today as BAM) and toured some of their historic facilities, including an old theater repurposed by dividing it into four small cinema spaces and a nearby building, dubbed The Harvey (for administrator Harvey Lichtenstein, who ran BAM for more than three decades), which was once a vaudeville theater. —-Today the Harvey is “restored” — although the funky restoration has kept the place looking like a work in progress with chipped plaster and ancient décor — and serves as a presenting space for theater companies, concerts, dance and a lot of MTV shoots. BAM’s cinema shows classic films and newer works that relate to the content of shows that are being presented — or simply films that are interesting, artistic independent work.
BAM has been the anchor of a growing arts and culture district in Brooklyn that’s become a magnet for housing, restaurants and shopping. It’s a vibrant neighborhood where the economic impact of the arts is tangible, and it made me think that we have facilities and neighborhoods in Cincinnati that could follow a similar path. Someday.
South Pacific: Friday felt like a day to look back at history, after my excursion to Brooklyn. So attending Lincoln Center’s 2008 revival of South Pacific was the perfect way to wrap things up. This 1949 classic (winner of 10 Tony awards in 1950) is one of the shining examples of classic musicals from the Golden Age of Broadway. And with good reason — it has a memorable score by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, and a plot that derives from a best-selling novel by James Michener. Until 2008, however, it had only been revived once on Broadway. Lincoln Center, a non-profit theater that’s within the theater district, decided to bring it back in all its glory, winning seven Tonys that year, including one for best revival of a musical.
The formula was simple, if expensive: The producers went back to the show’s roots and assembled a big orchestra, brought in some powerful stars and put it on the biggest stage available, the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. South Pacific hit the mark on every count and it’s been running for more than two years — an exceptionally long period for a production at Lincoln Center. It closes on Aug. 22, so I was here just in time. It has inspired a tour, however, that will bring a version of this production to cities across the United States, including Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center (Sept. 21-Oct. 3), presented by Broadway Across America.
The Lincoln Center staging is glorious with an orchestra of nearly 30 musicians, about double the number usually in the pit for Broadway shows today — and maybe three times the number who accompany shows at the Aronoff. Sad to say, musicians have become an expensive element of musical theater today, and many producers try to cut corners. But not with South Pacific on Broadway. In fact, the orchestra has been a selling point throughout the show’s run, using just about every note of Richard Russell Bennett’s legendary orchestrations (which include lots of underscoring of various scenes). The musicians perform in a pit beneath the stage floor that slides back to reveal them in tuxes for the overture and the entr’acte. In fact, for the latter, groups of musicians are featured with a bit of jazzy choreography. The audience ate it up.
The leading male role of Emile de Becque is being filled (again, late in the run) by Paulo Szot, a Metropolitan Opera singer from Brazil, who won a 2008 Tony Award for the role. His voice is certainly reminiscent of Ezio Pinza, another opera singer who originated the role 60 years ago, but Szot has movie-star looks to match his big voice and stage presence. When he sings “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine,” there isn’t a woman in the audience who doesn’t sigh and wish he was singing to her personally. Kelly O’Hara, a Tony nominee as Ensign Nellie Forbush when the revival opened, is returning for the last few weeks; she’s not in it yet, however, so I enjoyed Laura Osnes, doing an excellent job as the spunky nurse from Little Rock who struggles with love from a man whose past is so different from anything she knows.
The cast is immense (approximately 40) and talented. It offers dozens of sailors (actually they’re “Seabees,” guys who came in to construct bases on the Pacific Islands during World War II), nurses for the military hospital, officers, Tonkinese islanders and French planters and their families who have estates on the island. Danny Burstein provides comic relief as the enterprising Luther Billis, a Seabee who never misses a chance to make a buck and a few jokes along the way. Loretta Ables Sayre is Bloody Mary, a brassy Tonkinese woman who is besting Billis at his own game, but who also sings some of the show’s most evocative melodies — including “Bali Ha’i.” Andrew Samonsky is Lt. Joseph Cable, a sullen Marine who is charged to undertake a dangerous mission; he has a lovely tenor voice (especially for “Younger Than Springtime”), but its lightness is at odds with the often angry character he plays.
The big ensemble is great fun to watch, especially when the vibrant Seabees sing “Bloody Mary” and “There Is Nothing Like A Dame.” In Act II, the entire cast is part of a joyous and amusing talent show, and the featured number, “Honey Bun,” is another highlight. Making the company seem all the larger is the Vivian Beaumont stage, which has incredible depth. Michael Yeargan’s scenic design (and Donald Holder’s evocative lighting) benefited from such a big space: The beach seems to recede into a vast distance with an ocean beyond and the dimly visible peaks of Bali Ha’i on the horizon. DeBecque’s estate house has an open, airy feeling that evokes island living with louvered blinds and pastel colors. The show is a visual treat.
This production is an excellent reminder of why musicals became a big deal in the middle of the 20th century, and a show like South Pacific still has the power to dazzle contemporary audiences. But I also appreciate the fact that in 1949, Rodgers and Hammerstein subtly but squarely addressed issues of racial prejudice, especially in “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” a song about how children are not born hating people who are different from them. Put all these elements together, and there’s good reason to look forward to the arrival of the tour of South Pacific at the Aronoff Center next month.
(For a great sense of the production, check out this video montage from the Lincoln Center Theater's site.)