When director Bartlett Sher agreed to direct the 2008 Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific —a production that went on to win seven Tony Awards—he told his cast, "We have to sing it better than the original, because through the mists of memory it has become so good." The road version of that award-winning Lincoln Center Theater production is now playing at the Ordway, and it's difficult to imagine it being sung any better. In fact, the singing is almost too good.
Carmen Cusack (last seen here as the green witch Elphaba in Wicked ) plays Ensign Nellie Forbush, a simple girl from Arkansas who has been deployed as a World War II nurse on an island somewhere in the South Pacific. But when Nellie opens her mouth to sing her first song, "A Cockeyed Optimist," she suddenly produces a soprano so lush and sophisticated that it's all but impossible to believe it's coming from the "hick" she claims to be.
Likewise, the actor/singer who plays Nellie's love interest, the French plantation owner Emile de Becque, is opera veteran Rod Gilfry, owner of one of the richest, fullest baritones in the world. Here's a guy who is trained to rattle the rafters of the world's best opera halls without the aid of a microphone. So when he fills his lungs to croon "Some Enchanted Evening," fully miked, the sound he produces is ridiculously huge, as if he's singing inside an elevator shaft. Together, in their duets, Cusack and Gilfry are almost overwhelmingly powerful. Then again, the undeniable strength of their voices is part of what distinguishes this version of South Pacific from the scads of earnest but marginal shows that have irked audiences for decades.
The other distinguishing characteristic of Sher's version is that the war itself plays a more vital and realistic role. The central story involves two love affairs—one between Emile and Nellie, the other between Lt. Joseph Cable (Anderson Davis) and a native Polynesian girl, Liat (Sumie Maeda)—that are complicated by the uncertainty of war and racism regarding relationships between white people and islanders. In so many productions of South Pacific , the war is romanticized into a cartoonish conflict that has absolutely no teeth. In Sher's production, the sailors are still a bunch of fun-loving buffoons, but the officers mean business, and air raid sirens between many of the scenes remind us that there is a tangible threat out there somewhere.
Not that the production isn't fun—it is. It's just that there's a better balance between the frothy exuberance one expects in any South Pacific production and the actual characters and drama at the heart of the story. The sailor choreography in "There's Nothing Like a Dame" is the closest the show comes to the sort of over-the-top, pull-out-the-stops stage frenzy that infects so many Broadway products. The other signature songs—"Bali Hai," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," and "Happy Talk"—are expertly staged and sufficiently entertaining, but they also grow more organically out of the story and characters than usual, an artistic choice that trades gratuitous pizzazz for more believable emotional impact.
Overall, it's clear that Sher took the increasingly fashionable approach of referring back to the source material for inspiration. And by source material I don't mean Rodgers and Hammerstein's book, I mean the book that started it all, James Michener's Tales from the South Pacific (which is fantastic in its own right). Not that anyone is trying to hide it—in fact, the first two paragraphs of the book are displayed on a giant screen as the audience is being seated.
In short, what's playing now at the Ordway is probably the finest production of South Pacific most of us will ever see. It is almost certainly better than the original, if only because actor training, microphone technology, and set-design skills are so much more advanced nowadays. The only factor that may blunt its effectiveness is the knowledge current audience members have—through such movies as Saving Private Ryan , Platoon , and The Hurt Locker , not to mention live news reporting from war zones—about the brutal realities of war. Seen through the lens of this reality, South Pacific does seem silly and trivial, a romantic relic from a time when war could be thought of as fun. But when Cusack and Gilfry fill the Ordway with glorious song, none of that serious stuff seems to matter—because hey, it's a show, a classic, and it's being performed so well that attention must be paid, and applause must be given.
South Pacific continues at Ordway Center through May 16.
Pictured above: Rod Gilfry, C.J. Palma, Christina Carerra, Carmen Cusack