Perhaps I am just a sentimental old fool, or perhaps I am trapped in a time warp that takes me back to my 1958 seat in the Peekskill Paramount Theatre of my New York boyhood. It was there that I first saw the film, “South Pacific,” while at once being swept away on my first hearing of that exquisite music. Whatever the cause, shortly after I took my place in orchestra seat #108 of row ‘F,’ tears filled my eyes even before the opening “Bali Ha’i” segment of the Overture had concluded. (Orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett). I have NEVER heard this Rodgers & Hammerstein score sound better, and the brilliant conductor, James Moore, had every reason to be beaming as he waved his baton with the kind of joy I felt running through me. There are moments in life when we just feel so totally blessed, and this was one of mine. On a lovely spring afternoon, with every kind of chaos imaginable surrounding us around the world, there I was in arguably the greatest city on earth, New York, sitting in Lincoln Center’s lovely Vivian Beaumont Theatre, and confronted with extraordinarily talented actors and musicians who were performing a masterpiece superbly. It was a joy!
With skillful direction from Bartlett Sher anchoring the production, the co-stars, Laura Marie Duncan, as Nellie, and William Michals as Emile, clearly deserved to head this stellar cast. The easy naturalness and vocal purity of Miss Duncan is perfectly matched by the deeply resonant and richly operatic voice of Mr. Michals. Not only is their singing brilliant throughout, but also their sensitive performances as actors build a warm, poignant and very believable relationship between a Nellie and Emile that we truly care about at the final curtain. Along the way there are many other joys that play out on the crisp, clean set of Michael Yeargan, and its fine depiction of the island beach with sea and Bali Ha’i beyond. In fine voice herself, Loretta Ables Sayre gives us a devilishly amusing Bloody Mary who is full of fun. I only wished the lighting designer had given her greater focus and captured more of the island mystery during her powerful, “Bali Ha’i.” There was further comic fun in the rowdy performance of Danny Burstein in the role of Seabee, Luther Billis. A particular highlight was the “Thanksgiving Follies” segment pairing Luther and Nellie for an uproarious “Honey Bun” that featured Luther’s memorable belly dance. The number was beautifully staged with clever choreography (Musical Staging by Christopher Gattelli) and costumes (Catherine Zuber) for a talented cast of navy nurses that would totally “nail” other great numbers like, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and “A Wonderful Guy.” Meanwhile the lusty cast of Seabees gives rich, ensemble vocal perfection to favorites like “Bloody Mary,” and “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” (During the latter they set a new standard for beautifully whispering a lyric with the line, “There are no books like a dame…”)
If there was a weak link in this very golden chain, I think it would be the earnest, but inadequate performance of Andrew Samonsky as Lt. Joseph Cable. His singing voice was simply not on the exotic plane of Duncan and Michals. Then too, he seemed to be working toward a super-cool, aloof characterization, and in the process never generated the kind of warmth needed to make credible his brief affair with Mary’s daughter, Liat (played by lovely Li Jun Li).
Laurissa Romain and Luka Kain perform sweetly as Emile’s children, while Skip Sudduth and Sean Cullen nicely portray the base commanding officers. But above all, it seemed most appropriate that the sliding stage was pulled back several times to reveal the magnificent pit orchestra. It was, without question, another star of the show!
South Pacific continues through August 22nd at New York’s Lincoln Center in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre (150 W. 65th St.) Performances are Tuesdays @ 7 p.m., Wed.- Sat. @ 8 p.m., Wed. & Sat. @ 2 p.m., and Sunday @ 3 p.m. For tickets and information call Telecharge.com (212-239-6200) or visit www.SouthPacificMusical.com.