South Pacific returns to its surprisingly raw roots

The songs from South Pacific are part of our daily diet. We hum them; we pray they don't turn up in TV commercials; we endure bad renditions in a thousand amateur productions; and we occasionally stop to marvel that these melodies — "Some Enchanted Evening," "Younger Than Springtime," "This Nearly Was Mine" — emanated from the inspired brain of one man, Richard Rodgers. But aside from its music, I'd been thinking that the play, written in 1949, was a dated old warhorse, with a plot that made light of war and touched rather timidly — though high-mindedly — on issues of race. It seemed that sitting through a performance would be like chewing your way through a sawdusty muffin, enlivened only occasionally by a juicy blueberry of song.

Director Bartlett Sher thought otherwise, though, and his revival, which first appeared on Broadway in 2008, supplies not only a feast for the senses, but serious food for thought. Under his hand, the script's daring and intelligence, the connections between words and music, celebration and grief, become gloriously clear. There's a real awareness here of the mores of the time. Bloody Mary isn't cute; she's as ferocious as the shrunken human heads she sells suggest, a Mother Courage profiteering on war. The sailors are cut-ups, but they also display all the irresponsibility, blindness and hostility representative of troops in foreign lands, and the handful of black sailors are never seen speaking with the whites, let alone singing or dancing with them.

The racism that underlies so much of the action moves to the fore when Nellie Forbush realizes that Emile De Becque, the French plantation owner with whom she's fallen in love, has children by a Polynesian wife, who's since died. Nellie may be a high-spirited charmer, but she's also prejudiced to the core, trapped in the assumptions of her time, place and class. Lieutenant Joseph Cable, who falls for Bloody Mary's beautiful, silent daughter Liat, is usually portrayed as a doomed and moony dreamer; now I realize he's a Philadelphia upper-cruster, as trapped by privilege as Nellie is by provincialism. "They say it never works," Nellie says when Cable tries to imagine bringing Liat home with him. Later, there's a fraught, powerful encounter between Cable and De Becque. Shaking with fever, filled with grief, Cable comes to the realization that "We've got to be taught to hate and fear," while De Becque, mourning his beloved — lost to the same forces Cable has just decried — sings "This Nearly Was Mine." The voice of David Pittsinger, who plays De Becque, is operatic in scope, the orchestration full and rich, and the song purely beautiful. The tears that came to my eyes at that moment weren't the usual easy tears you shed at musicals, however; rather, they were the kind that send you inward, opening doors to some of your deepest memories.

Every element of this production is stunning: the elegant, flexible sets by Michael Yeargan (who also designed Sher's The Light in the Piazza) and the way Donald Holder's lighting plays around and against them; Catherine Zuber's accurate, expressive costumes; the way the actors are grouped and move in space. None of these elements draws attention to itself; each supports the overall theme and tone. Pittsinger is a dignified, sexy, ironic De Becque, and you believe as fully in his unswerving love for Nellie as you believe in hers for him. Carmen Cusack gives Nellie depth, quirkiness and intelligence as well as comic energy, and the sheer exhilaration with which she sings of her "Wonderful Guy" sends you to the moon. Matthew Saldivar's Luther is both an operator and an inspired goof; Anderson Davis makes Cable far more introspective than the usual musical-comedy young lover. And I'll never hear "Bali Ha'i" again without thinking of the amazing, squatly scowling Keala Settle.

Sher may have shifted a few scenes and songs, but he hasn't come up with a radical reinterpretation of the original. Instead, he has coaxed forth what was already in the work, the way you'd take a treasure from the attic, wipe off the dust and gently polish until the shining contours become visible. The last line comes as De Becque, having watched Nellie serve his children dinner, reaches under the table to take her hand. "Mange, Nellie," he says. Eat. Partake. And so we have. Richly.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman