South Pacific

by Lynn on September 5, 2010

in Archive,Picks & Pans

Touring productions of Broadway musicals are nothing new to Toronto audiences. But the production of SOUTH PACIFIC, that opened last night at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, is something special for many reasons. Our theatre critic Lynn Slotkin is here to explain.

Hello Lynn. Before we get to those special details, briefly, what is SOUTH PACIFIC about?

World War II. It’s the beautiful 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, based on the novel—Tales of the South Pacific, by James A. Michener. About a group of military men and women on an island in the South Pacific, anxiously waiting for their orders to get into the war.

There are various love stories, but the main one is between Ensign Nellie Forbush from Little Rock Arkansas, and suave Frenchman, Emile de Becque. Nellie learns a startling secret about Emile that has her questioning their relationship. It is a musical about love, racism, prejudice and finally wisdom.

What is so special about this production?

Most important is that it’s a touring production of the hugely successful Broadway revival, still playing at Lincoln Center Theater. Bartlet Sher directed the Broadway revival and does the same for this touring production. He won a Tony Award for it and you can tell why in this exquisite production. Many of the same Broadway creative team are involved with this touring production. That’s so rare with touring productions of Broadway shows.

The Toronto venue is also noteworthy. SOUTH PACIFIC is playing at the Four Seasons Centre For the Performing Arts—i n other words, our Opera/Ballet house. When I heard that, I was concerned. Musicals are always overly microphoned. I wondered how would this musical do in an opera house known for its fabulous acoustics which doesn’t need micing. But after seeing the production last night I needn’t have worried.

I won’t ask you to compare the New York and touring production, but how did this production do?

On the whole, wonderfully well. Barlett Sher is such a gifted director. He has captured Nellie and Emile’s initial awkwardness with each other as they realize their true feelings. They circle each other, they often try to keep their distance, which might suggest a slow pace but it’s not. The musical says a lot about narrow minded attitudes, such as mixed marriages. Something Nellie learns to fight against. But Sher takes this further and illuminates the racism some of the soldiers experience with each other.

There are three black soldiers in the background in the chorus. They are always separate from the rest of the white soldiers. It’s subtle but resoundingly obvious. If they do interact with white soldiers they are occasionally met with mimed condescension. Stunning. Bartlett Sher makes us look harder. But before everything there is the music, which this stellar cast handles with ease.

Tell us about that stellar cast.

They get to sing such wonderful songs as: A Cockeyed Optimist, Some Enchanted Evening, There is Nothing Like a Dame, Younger than Springtime, Bali Ha’i. And these are just some of the hits in Act I.

As Nellie Forbush, Carmen Cusack is innocent, kookie, sweet and graceful. She has a belting voice that can also capture the subtleties and softness of the music.

As Emile, Jason Howard is strapping, suave, engaging, and sings like a dream. It’s a beautiful performance—an aside– Mr. Howard is married. He wears a wedding ring. He’s playing a character who is not married. Mr. Howard, please take off your wedding ring for the performance, your wife will still love you.

I told you Bartlett Sher makes us look harder. This cast from top to bottom is top notch, And so is this production of SOUTH PACIFIC. I urge you to see how terrific a touring Broadway production can be. This is it.

SOUTH PACIFIC plays at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until September 5.