Review by Polly Wittenberg
Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is being hyped as the first “Broadway” revival of the show since its opening nearly 60 years ago. And, in a technical sense, that is true since its only recent appearances along the Great White Way have been at such venues as City Center, Carnegie Hall and the City Opera. It has also been seen at every high school auditorium and movie theater in existence as well as on every TV screen.
But let’s grant that this is the first attempt at a stroke-for-stroke stage revival at a “Broadway” venue and the obvious question to ask is: How does it stack up to the well-remembered Mary Martin-Ezio Pinza original which I never saw but have listened to countless times on the original cast album. The answer is: Pretty well!
From the moment the glorious music of the overture delivered by a 30-piece orchestra (with no synthesizers!) washes over you, you are hooked. As familiar as the songs are, these tales of all-American World War II Seabees and nurses living and dying in the wilds of the eastern tropics preparing to fight are shot through and through with enjoyment. The serious themes of the stories—interclass dissonance and racial prejudice--that were shocking to audiences when the original production debuted now seem pleasantly quaint. The second act of South Pacific is now and always has been distinctly inferior to the first. Even after three hours, the sugary ending arrives a bit abruptly. But none of these problems really matter.
The music, the lyrics and the performances still soar. Kelli O’Hara as Nellie Forbush, the nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas who falls for the handsome French ex-patriate Emile de Beque who is escaping his past, exudes all the freshness and warmth you could want. And she’s a fine singer and dancer as well. As de Beque, the Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot does not erase memories of the sound of the inimitable Italian basso Pinza, but no one could. Szot’s somewhat awkward charm and sturdy voice serve quite well, especially in “This Nearly Was Mine”—the highlight of the score for me. As Luther Billis, the leader of the Seabees and jokester in chief, Danny Burstein is swell—even though he skips the trick (perfected by Myron McCormick the original Billis) of making the tattooed ship on his stomach gyrate as if on the sea. And Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary is suitably sassy.
The handsome Matthew Morrison as the doomed Lt. Cable delivered the only disappointing performance. His voice, especially in the gorgeous “Younger Than Springtime” sounded thin.
The sets by Michael Yeargan, the costumes by Catherine Zuber and all of the technical aspects of the production were elaborate, pretty and appropriate. Director Bartlett Sher marshaled the large cast (40) with military precision.
I can’t believe that Lincoln Center Theater has developed this grand production only for the currently-scheduled limited run (which is probably entirely sold out to its subscription audience). There must be plans to move it to a venue closer to Times Square (and at least 50% larger than the Beaumont).
South Pacific, especially a fine production like this one, is all about great entertainment. Don’t miss it.
BEN BRANTLEY for NEW YORK TIMES says, "I know we’re not supposed to expect perfection in this imperfect world, but I’m darned if I can find one serious flaw in this production."
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ for NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says, "A stunning revival."
CLIVE BARNES for NEW YORK POST says, "Simply wonderful!"
MICHAEL SOMMERS for STAR LEDGER says, "As perfect a production as anyone is ever likely to see."
ELYSA GARDNER for USA TODAY says, "Doesn't just float; it soars."
ERIC GRODE for NEW YORK SUN says, "A crisp, sumptuous, unabashedly emotional revival that finds an almost perfect balance between severity and opulence."
JOHN SIMON for BLOOMBERG says, "Enchanting evening."
JACQUES LE SOURD for JOURNAL NEWS says, "A shame that this classic show, so lumberingly directed, just never takes off."
ROBERT FELDBERG for THE RECORD says, "The numbers are so entertaining, the show becomes a nostalgic treat."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA for ASSOCIATED PRESS says, "Enormously satisfying."
FRANK SCHECK for HOLLYWOOD REPORTER says, "This lavish production doesn't always succeed on a purely dramatic level...But it does do full justice to the glorious score."
DAVID ROONEY for VARIETY says, "This is ravishing theater."