Can you imagine the rush that the Broadway audience at the Majestic Theatre experienced April 7, 1949, when that splendidly rich overture to South Pacific rolled over them?
Exotic and exciting, that exceptional sound of Robert Russell Bennett's orchestrations of Richard Rodgers most characteristic score, using the haunting “Bali H'ai” as underpinning, blew them away. Not even his last hit Carousel with its diapason waltz tune matched the grandeur, the bounty, the pop-10 chart toppers that this new Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical provided in abundance. South Pacific changed the sound of Broadway.
You can recreate all that late '40s excitement with Theatre Under the Stars' sparkling revival of this iconic Broadway classic. It's its own rush.
South Pacific is a classic in every way – theme, staging, structure, music and lyrics, of course, and, most importantly, story. Broadway musicals grew up in the 1940s, became serious while they entertained, and fully integrated character within song. This apogee was enshrined in South Pacific. Using a few juicy stories and characters from James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winner Tales of the South Pacific, authors Hammerstein and Joshua Logan fashioned an adult musical tinged with war, racial and class prejudice, colonialism, an autumn/spring romance, premarital sex, chaste nurses and randy sailors. What's not to love. There's nothing in the canon like it – R&H's The King and I (1951) matches it, but Pacific is the progenitor.
After 73 years, this musical remains fresh and relevant, eternally tuneful, fragrant and moving. (A little of low comedy Seabee Luther Billis, slyly played to the balcony by Trey Harrington, goes a long way, but this tale needs some laughs. His fast-talking, sassy character is the most direct link to bygone vaudeville types, and his avatars date from Plautus via Shakespeare. They'll always be with us.)
TUTS' production mirrors the Tony-winning 2008 Lincoln Center Theater revival with its bamboo-slatted sets by Michael Yeargan, misty lighting by Clint Allen, snood and military mufti by Catherine Zuber. Director Taibi Magar, whose powerful and perceptive work on TUTS' Spring Awakening, the Alley's Skeleton Crew and Dry Powder were Houston theater highlights, keeps the show on the move with deft hand. That the navy base scene near the end drags a bit isn't her fault. There's so much exposition to plow through, and loose ends of the plot to wrap up, it's impossible to get through smoothly unless judiciously edited. Even classics have flaws.
Theater chronicler Ethan Mordden has noted that of all the great shows, South Pacific is one of the few that don't require stars to make it come alive. It's crafted so adroitly that the musical's bones are strong enough to withstand anyone. I think he's right. The TUTS' cast is awfully good, swiftly erasing any fond memories one might have of Mary Martin or Ezio Pinza (mostly gleaned from the phenomenally successful LP cast album). No one should ever remember Mitzi Gaynor or Rossano Brazzi from the bloated 1958 movie version.
Natalie Ballenger's Nellie Forbush has a more-knowing naivety than usual. Still a bit of a hick from Arkansas, she holds her own against the slick overtures of older French planter Emile de Becque, an impressively seductive James D. Sasser. They make a prickly couple destined to be together, even though she is repulsed by his libertine prior life. She's “in love with a wonderful guy,” and it takes the entire musical for her to see it. Once he's in mortal danger, her prejudice vanishes. It's a hasty reversal, but this theme was mighty novel for 1949 Broadway, even though E.Y. Harburg and Burton Lane's Finian's Rainbow two years earlier also used race as a major plot element.
Ruthlessly capitalistic, Bloody Mary, a definitive Melody Butiu, wants as much money as she can con from the sailors, and to get it she'll sell anything, even her daughter. She pimps out Liat (Rei Akazawa-Smith) to innocent Cable (Nigel Huckle with a sweet tenor) in hopes that he'll take her away from the horrors of war. Cable is immediately smitten, and on the forbidden, mysterious island of Bali Ha'i they consummate their love. In ecstatic afterglow, Cable sings one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ardent ballads, “Younger Than Springtime.”
But when pressured by Mary to marry Liat, Cable balks. He's a Main Liner, a blue blood scion; this marriage can never happen. Liat is shattered. Racked with guilt over a prejudice he can't overcome, Cable immediately goes on the suicide mission with de Becque, who's now been rebuffed by Nellie. Both of them have nothing to lose. (Throughout the show, Liat doesn't sing and has nary a line of dialogue. Liberals through and through, R&H nevertheless render her as “the other,” the outsider, a sinuous tropical cipher, only created to be used and discarded by Cable. In such a masterful show, it’s a blind spot.)
Nonetheless, the musical is rich with deep-dish resonant themes. These showbiz masters pull you in with a wizard’s slight of hand. You can’t resist the songs: “Some Enchanted Evening,” the erotic tension of Emile and Nellie’s first date, pairing “Cockeyed Optimist” with “Twin Soliloquies;” the sailors’ boisterous “There is Nothing Like a Dame;” Nellie’s wish, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair;” Emile’s plaintive anthem, “This Nearly Was Mine;” the show-within-the-show’s raucous number, “Honey Bun.” It’s one hit after another. R&H at the pinnacle of their genius.
The cast is ably rounded out with Logan Keslar (Stewpot), Christopher Tipps (Professor), Paul Hope (Captain Brackett), Philip Kershaw (Cmdr. Harbison), and a lively ensemble of sailors and nurses who kick up their heels under choreographer Courtney D. Jones’ swiftly spirited dances.
South Pacific is peerless. Musical theater at its best, it’s one for the ages. TUTS’ splendid production proves it.
South Pacific continues through February 20 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sunday at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Guests 12 and older must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination. Masks required. For more information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $40-$136.