Years ago, a friend and I were talking about our high school musicals and he mentioned that they did a production of South Pacific which they had retitled "So Pathetic" because it failed in every category by which one might evaluate theater. The casting? Lousy. The orchestra? Ill-equipped. The staging? Laughable - even by high school standards. I had never seen South Pacific and knew very little about the plot, but i found the name So Pathetic very amusing and have chuckled about it to myself whenever it came to mind.
So Saturday night I got to see South Pacific at Lincoln Center. Before i talk about the show, i must call into question the business practices of the Lincoln Center Box Office. They have a cancellation line, but they keep it around the corner from the actual box office and i believe it's "out of sight, out of mind" if they get cancellation tickets, and someone in the advanced sale line asks for them, they get them and the cancellation can go screw themselves. I know this because I've been burned on this particular cancellation line, and got my ticket for the evening performance by going straight to advanced sales. Just so you know.
Anyway, South Pacific is a truly excellent production of what i can only describe as an enchantingly bizarro show. All I knew about it going in was that it took place in the South Pacific, a lady wore a sailor outfit, someone sings Some Enchanted Evening, and race is an issue. Speaking to a friend on Friday, I was told I knew more of the music than i thought I did, and that was true. There are a lot of songs (the show is a solid three hours long) and most of them became American Standards. This makes some people in the audience feel okay to sing along. And to the elderly gentleman who sat behind me I must say: you sir, are no Kelli O'Hara. That kind of crap might be okay if you're going to see Mamma Mia! or (god help you) Grease, but please don't let your enthusiasm for the music lead you to try out-singing the leads. You ain't got the pipes.
So as I was saying, the production is breathtaking. It certainly earns its 11 Tony nominations. But i think the show itself it a little kooky, and I can understand why it might not hold up well under high school or community theater limitations. Most of my problems with the show revolve around Lieutenant Cable. I just don't understand how I'm supposed to feel about him. He loves this girl, but then he won't marry her because of her race (and maybe because she's actually too young?), and then goes off on some heroic mission and **Spoiler Alert!!** dies off-stage with very little fanfare and the show never really gives him any kind of send off. This was not to my liking. In fact, the ending as a whole feels kinda rushed. It reminded me of that line from the great Forbidden Broadway spoof of Ragtime, "It's getting near Eleven, and you have to wrap things up. Make them shoot you. Make them shoot you." I mean, I've been investing in the story for three hours and the big reunion at the end involves hands being held at the dinner table? That's it? Bah!
Story issues aside, if you are to see a production of South Pacific, this is the one to see. The set looks magical. The upstage is built in a way that really plays with perspective in a remarkable way, making the playing space look twice as deep as it is. Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot are great as the leads. The entire supporting cast is great. The production just feels ROBUST. It's a big show, but the Lincoln Center space makes it feel intimate. The giant orchestra is fantastic and the music sounds lush without being overpowering.
There are three really great musical revivals from this season on Broadway right now. I don't know how I'd pick between Sunday, Gypsy and South Pacific if i was a tony voter. The people on NY1 On Stage this morning seemed certain that South Pacific would win. It's certainly worthy. I'm left feeling not wild about the show itself, but this is first rate presentation. And i think my favorite song was one I actually didn't know called "Happy Talk" sung so well by Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary. I will close this post with a lyric I was quite fond of:
Happy talk, keep talkin' happy talk,
Talk about things you'd like to do.
You got to have a dream,
If you don't have a dream,
How you gonna have a dream come true?