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ISBS Review: South Pacific on Broadway

By Brian | July 27, 2008 | Share on Facebook

As an anniversary gift, my in-laws bought us tickets to see the latest revival of South Pacific, currently playing at the Lincoln Square Theater in New York.

For those who don’t know (I didn’t until tonight), South Pacific was written in 1949 by the legendary team of Rodgers and Hammerstein.  It tells the story of two couples who meet while stationed in the South Pacific during World War II.  The first is comprised of Nellie Forbush, a young army nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, and Emile de Becque, a well-travelled Frenchman who moved to the islands after a run-in with the law in his hometown.  Despite their many differences, they fall in love and plan to marry, until Nellie learns that Emile has two children by a local, Polynesian woman who has since died.  Nellie has an adverse reaction to the race of Emile’s former lover, and her racism causes her to end the relationship.  The second couple is Lieutenant Joe Cable, a clean-cut boy from Philadelphia, who falls in love with a local Tonkinese girl, Lyatt, but ultimately refuses to marry her because of what the people at home would think of the mixed marriage.  From there, the war intercedes to separate each pair, and the two women deal with the guilt, fear, regret, and unrequited love that comes from these initial, racially-motivated decisions.

Along the way, South Pacific delivers some classic Rodgers and Hammerstein songs that you have likely heard before – “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta my Hair” (the latter most likely from a 70′s-era Clairol commercial that extolled, “I’m Gonna Wash That Gray Right Outta my Hair”).  There are also songs that will sound familiar, but you might not recognize right out of the gate, such as “Bali Ha’i” and “A Cockeyed Optimist.”

With all of that going for it, I’m sorry to report that I found this performance of South Pacific to be an extremely well done staging of a mediocre musical.  In other words, while the singing, acting, music, dancing, etc. were spectacular – a wonderfully talented cast – I was surprised to find that such a well-known, time-honored show like South Pacific had so many problems when it came to storytelling.

At it’s core, the issue is the mix between exposition/character development and meaningful plot points.  The first act is an hour and forty-five minutes long, and is mostly a light-hearted, good-natured romp.  We get to know and like all of the characters during this time, as they laugh and joke with each other over matters of life and love.  The first hint of trouble in either of the two main relationships doesn’t come until literally five minutes before intermission, when Nellie reveals that she won’t marry Emile because he slept with a Polynesian woman.  When the house lights come on, I found myself wondering why it took so damn long to make such a simple point.

Early in the second act, the other shoe finally drops, as we learn the Lt. Cable won’t marry Lyatt either, for similar, racially-motivated reasons.  Then, inexplicably, the members of the army base launch into a fun-loving, raucous Thanksgiving Day celebration show, complete with a very funny drag skit, where one of the men dons a coconut brassiere and plays coy with a nurse dressed in a man’s sailor uniform.  While entertaining, this extended diversion takes away whatever momentum the rather serious-minded main plot had developed.  At this point, the show turns darker (literally and figuratively), as our light musical comedy with occasional bouts of social consciousness suddenly becomes a war story – complete with maps, secret radio transmissions, and panic-stricken women left to wait nervously while their men risk their lives at war.

I won’t ruin the ending, of course, but I will tell you that whatever commentary the authors sought to make about racism and the choices we make in our lives could easily have been made quite strongly in roughly half an hour.  Interspersing that story throughout two and a half hours of tangentially related music and fun watered it down to such a degree that this audience member, at least, walked away unsatisfied.

One last side note:  after the curtain calls, a quote appears on a large screen, describing how the men and women in the South Pacific during World War II would one day fade into history, much like those at Shiloh or Valley Forge have already done.  It occurred to me that in 1949, when the show debuted, the memories of World War II were so fresh that such a notion was likely a sobering one.  Reading the quote in 2008, when it’s prediction has essentially come to pass, I was impressed by how the same quote could be so sobering to two different generations for almost diametrically opposite reasons.

Alas, if only the show’s message had hit home as strongly.

Topics: ISBS Reviews, New York, New York | 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “ISBS Review: South Pacific on Broadway”

  1. Michael Weinmayr says at July 27th, 2008 at 7:30 am :
    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve performed in 4 R&H musicals (this one, Oklahoma, The King & I, and Carousel), and while they are all heavy-handed in the moral lessons that they attempt to deliver, South Pacific is the worst of the lot. I don’t plan to see it again, unless I know somebody in the cast.

    I also recently went to a musical revue of songs from R&H musicals, and it was great. If only the books of these shows weren’t so ponderous.

  2. Brian says at July 27th, 2008 at 9:01 pm :
    Now that you mention it, I was in a pit orchestra for Carousel in high school, and while it was quite the morality lesson, I don’t remember it dragging on for nearly as long.

    Now that I’ve sat through another three hours of R&H as an adult, though, I think I’d almost always prefer an R&H musical revue to any of their shows.

    Unless, as you mention, I know someone in the cast (most likely – you!)

  3. Michael Weinmayr says at July 29th, 2008 at 7:41 am :
    An additional thought: R&H always kill someone off. And, it’s whichever character is the most convenient, the one who isn’t going to change, and that allows everyone else to “learn a wonderful life lesson”. Feh.


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