South Pacific. Among the former were Mitzi Gaynor (who starred in the musical's 1958 film version and who looks amazing), Shirley Jones, Monty Python's Eric Idle, and out actor-comedian Alec Mapa.
The production, directed by Bartlett Sher (who was also in attendance), was honored with seven 2008 Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical. Since this is the Pulitzer Prize-winning chestnut's first Broadway revival since the 1948 original, expectations for the touring company's LA stop have been high and mine were mostly fulfilled.
In terms of stagecraft and performances, kudos are indeed deserved. Michael Yeargan's evocative sets provide just the right geographical and historical atmosphere for a story that details the lives and loves of men and women — both native and transplanted — inhabiting the islands during World War II. The full orchestra and the cast's vocal prowess do splendid justice to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's score, which includes such standards as "Some Enchanted Evening," "There is Nothin' Like a Dame," "Bali Ha'i" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," to name only a few.
But the melodramatic excess of the musical's book, adapted by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan from James A. Michener's novel Tales of the South Pacific, is more apparent now than ever. This is partly the result of changing theatrical sensibilities with the passage of time, but it doesn't excuse the fact that the show's first act in particular is hardly a classic of dramatic construction. At one hour and 45 minutes, it is painfully overlong, especially since it consists almost entirely of character and romantic development. Sher's addition of some rear male nudity and a same-sex kiss perk things up, but only momentarily.
The second act, which picks up one week after the first, is decidedly more engrossing. Arkansas-bred Naval nurse Nellie Forbush (a fine Carmen Cusack) confronts her racist attitudes — which are more bluntly apparent under Sher's direction than in prior productions — while plantation owner Emile deBecque (renowned baritone Rod Gilfry) and Marine Lt. Joseph Cable (Anderson Davis, who sports an exquisite singing voice as well as a chiseled physique) embark on a dangerous mission to spy on the Japanese. Act II also benefits from the annual "Thanksgiving Follies" show-within-a-show, which features the sprightly "Honey Bun" production number.
The cast is superb. In addition to those already mentioned, it is worth singling out Matthew Saldivar as the comically-conniving Luther Billis, Keala Settle as a lovable but more desperate than usual Bloody Mary, Gerry Becker as Captain George Brackett and the lovely Sumie Maeda as Liat, Bloody Mary's destined-for-disappointment daughter.
Despite the script's shortcomings, this South Pacific is well worth seeing for its top-tier production values and, of course, the opportunity to hear its legendary score live. On that note, no pun intended, I feel an obligation to mention how disappointed I was by the behavior of the opening night audience during the musical's overture. Too many latecomers were still distractedly finding their seats, and plenty of those already seated felt compelled to talk throughout. Everyone finally quieted once the house lights were dimmed fully.
While some modern musicals don't feature overtures, they are hardly a thing of the past. Even if they were, the median age of the opening night crowd would betray any potential claims of ignorance regarding theatre-going courtesy. Folks, once the music starts it's time to sit down, shut up and listen. Even Bloody Mary's shrunken heads have more common sense.
South Pacific continues at the Ahmanson Theatre through July 17.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.