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‘South Pacific’ production stunning

November 19, 2010
By SARAH REED, Theater critic for Weekender

PITTSBURGH - Even though the touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" only played at the Benedum Center for a brief time, the production's potency will not be easily forgotten.

Based on James A. Michener's novel "Tales of the South Pacific," the musical is set during World II on two different islands of the South Pacific. The story centers around two sets of lovers - a young, buoyant Navy nurse, Ensign Nellie Forbush and an older French planter named Emile de Becque. The second couple includes a young American lieutenant and his young Tonkinese lover.

Nellie and Emile meet during an officers' club dance and start to fall in love. A few weeks after that dance, at which time the first scene of Act I takes place, Emile and Nellie are together at Emile's home, and their love for each other starts to unfold more fully while Lt. Cable and his lover Liat meet by way of a Tonkinese business woman when Lt. Cable voyages to Bali Ha'i. Throughout the course of the week each couple learns many things about one another, some of which threatens their relationships.

They are torn apart by these differences and difficulties, and they come to terms with their personal problems and pasts only to learn what really means most to them and what they truly live for.

Carmen Cusack's portrayal of Nellie Forbush was very distinctive. She played Nellie with an appearance of womanly restraint, particularly at first. She let out her girlish, "cock-eyed optimist" attitude enough for the audience to get a flavor of Nellie's true temperament but seemed to bring a manner of seriousness to her Nellie even after she opened up more to those around her. This made her Nellie intricate from beginning to end.

Cusack's singing voice was strong and lovely and reminiscent of Mary Martin, the original Broadway Nellie Forbush. Also, Cusack's energy lent a sweet air of gaiety to such numbers as "Wonderful Guy" and "Honey Bun" and an unsettling tone in the final scene of Act I where Nellie is forced to articulate a problem she is facing with Emile.

David Pittsinger as Emile de Becque wore his heart on his sleeve every moment he was on stage. His characterization was brimming with tenderness and intense passion. Making Pittsinger's portrayal all the more admirable was his magnificent singing voice. His mesmerizing baritone had a quality that evoked tears from me the first moment he began to sing and nearly every time after.

His renditions of "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly was Mine" were particularly powerful. Both songs allowed him to exhibit his extraordinary vocal range as well as his broad acting range. "Some Enchanted Evening" allowed him to use the softer part of voice as well as the more tender side to his Emile, while "This Nearly was Mine" allowed him to exhibit the deeper part of his voice as well as Emile's more agonized emotions.

Anderson Davis as Lt. Joseph Cable coupled bravery with gentleness in a perfect manner. The bravery he displayed gave him a strong stage presence and manliness, while the gentleness he displayed with young Tonkinese girl Liat, played by Sumie Maeda, made his love scenes tender and his all-around characterization very personable. His "Younger than Springtime" was sung purely from the heart and was bursting with romance.

Jodi Kimura's Bloody Mary, the crafty Tonkinese business woman, was powerfully voiced and fascinatingly portrayed. Kimura's Bloody Mary - though rough and somewhat eerie - used enough humor to allow the audience to be at ease with her character. In addition to her complex portrayal her performance of "Bali Ha'i" was alluring.

Timothy Gulan's portrayal of sailor Luther Billis was exceptional and fascinating to watch. He played Billis whole-heartedly with a tough, wise-cracking, fast-talking air for the most part. But when he was with Nellie, his whole demeanor changed to complete unabashed affection that was very endearing and heart-warming.

The production was made all the more splendid with its sets and lighting, which created a beautiful and realistic world. The sets, whether it was de Becque's home or a large sand-dune on the beach that the actors would climb over, were extravagant, large and detailed. The lighting lent a transporting aura to the musical with its deep, rich pinks and oranges as well as with its darker, grayer colors depicting the more down-trodden moments in the piece.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's haunting score - including such famous showtunes as "Bali Ha'i,""There is Nothin' Like a Dame," and "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair" - was brought to life by a full, rich orchestra. What emotions the characters couldn't express in words, the lushness of the score and the orchestra, with its particularly prominent violins and insightful lyrics, did in a spell-binding way.

This production of "South Pacific" was modeled after the 2008 Lincoln Center revival production which ran on Broadway for years. The Broadway revival was the first full-scale production of the musical to be performed on Broadway since its original opening in 1949.

To be an audience member of this particular production was an immense joy. The story, the music, the performers and all the physical elements in the production all came together to create a world that did not loosen its hold on me until the final curtain had fallen. I only wish the tour's stay could have been longer so more people could have enjoyed it.

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