"South Pacific"

photo courtesy of Peter Coombs

Play:        "South Pacific"

Venue:        The Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand

Dates:        Through November 21

Tickets:    From $28; contact 314-534-1111, www.metrotix.com or www.fabulousfox.com

Story:    Stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II, Navy ensign Nellie Forbush becomes smitten with a local plantation owner, middle-aged Frenchman Emile de Becque.  He falls in love with her as well, not mentioning that he is a widow with two children by his late wife, a Polynesian woman.

The bored sailors stationed on the island, led by enlisted man Luther Billis, scheme to reach nearby Bali Ha’i, an island off-limits except to officers, to meet native women.  Native entrepreneur Bloody Mary warns the men against visiting the other island, but offers to take a new officer, Joe Cable, there to meet her own daughter Liat.  As the relationships between Nellie and de Becque and between Cable and Liat develop, the Americans are forced to face the prejudices of themselves and their society about other people and races.  When base leader Captain Brackett seeks help for a dangerous mission to gather crucial information against the Japanese, Cable volunteers and de Becque is asked to join him.

Highlights:    Based on James A. Michener’s book, “Tales of the South Pacific,” this 1949 musical swept 10 Tony Awards as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950.  One of the most successful shows in Broadway history, it features music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and a book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, who directed the original production.  A 2008 Broadway revival won seven Tony Awards, including Best Revival.  The present touring production features a live orchestra performing Rodgers’ original orchestrations, and the full, rich sound conducted by Lawrence Goldberg under Ted Sperling’s musical direction greatly enhances the entire presentation.

        In short, this touring version is a highly satisfying, exhilarating rendition under Bartlett Sher’s spirited direction.  Led by two powerful performances by Carmen Cusack and David Pittsinger in the lead romantic roles of Nellie and de Becque, it features soaring vocals and dazzling choreography played out on a magical set designed by Michael Yeargan.  That design features an array of giant ‘blinds’ that billow down to bracket de Becque’s home or open up to reveal scenic backdrops that offer tropical vistas bathed in varying hues accentuated by Donald Holder’s luminescent lighting.

Other Info:    The rich score receives excellent treatment by the cast, from the rousing chorus of “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” to the rich romantic ballad, “Some Enchanted Evening,” sung by opera star Pittsinger in his deep, full baritone.  Cusack is charming and delightful throughout, beautifully capturing the style and substance of tunes such as “A Cockeyed Optimist” and “A Wonderful Guy.” Both performers are solid in their acting as well, providing a decided chemistry that translates into distinct rapport and believability on stage.

        Anderson Davis as Cable seems a bit stronger with his smooth singing voice than in his acting, which at times is not quite as consistent as would be preferred, but there’s no mistaking his pronounced musical ability when crooning “Younger Than Springtime.” Jodi Kimura offers consistent comic relief as the manipulative Bloody Mary and shows her own singing skill on the lush “Bali Ha’i.” (NOTE: Maryann Hu will play the role from November 16-21).

St. Louis native Gerry Becker has fun with the comic moments as the blustering Capt. Brackett, while Timothy Gulan suitably chews up scenery as the enterprising Billis.  Sumie Maeda is fine in the mostly silent role of Liat, and Robert Hunt ably portrayed second-in-command Commander Harbison on opening night (Peter Rini is the primary performer in this role).

Catherine Zuber’s costumes fit suitably both for military and civilians, with excellent musical staging by Christopher Gattelli and sound by Scott Lehrer.  The 2008 revival garnered Tonys for Yeargan, Zuber, Holder and Lehrer for their excellent technical contributions.

As vibrant and as meaningful as when it debuted in 1949, this touring production of “South Pacific” is an enriching, exuberant and engaging evening guaranteed to please with its impressive array of memorable tunes and appealing story.

Rating:        A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.