Sunday, April 27, 2008

New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Eleven, "South Pacific"


As one enters the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center for the sparkling new production of "South Pacific" (the first-ever Broadway revival of the show), there is a scrim spread across the stage, upon which are projected the first few sentences of James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific," the book upon which the show was based:

"I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting."

Likewise, I wish I could tell you about this production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's amazing show. The way it actually was. The stunning sets. The amazing voice of Paolo Szot. The 30-piece orchestra filling every corner of the space with tone and tune. I wish I could tell you about the sweetness of both Kelli O'Hara's voice and her interpretation of cockeyed optimist Ens. Nellie Forbush, and the power of the male chorus as they belt "There is Nothing Like a Dame," unamplified but still potent enough to press you back in your seat.

But I can't, really. You're going to have to go to New York and experience it for yourself. If you are coming to New York and have even one night free, this is the show to fill those evening hours. Sure, "Spring Awakening" breaks new ground for the Broadway musical, and "Jersey Boys" takes the story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons and puts it on stage like a living, breathing, singing graphic novel, but no show is as worthy of your attention as this "South Pacific."

First, this is one of the best -- if not THE best -- Broadway musical ever written. Every song is great. Every one. Of course, some are greater than others, but there are no off numbers, none that just don't fit. On top of that, the book has true drama. Something important takes place on stage. In fact, several important things: two love stories and an adventure story that also throws obstacles in the path of love. Add to all that the political undertones of "South Pacific," the way it lays bare the foolishness of prejudice at the same time it reveals the importance of duty and the glory of sacrifice for a worthy cause.

Part of me wants to go on and talk about how this nearly 60-year old show has such resonance with our current situation, how it touches on deeper aspects of humanity (Bali Ha'i as a metaphor for the mystery of existence that compels us all to seek meaning in the midst of mystery), how it touches on aspects of humanity that are universal -- both light and dark. But I would run the risk of boring you, something "South Pacific" never does. Even as it ran past the three-hour mark, I wanted it to go on and on and on, like that timeless, repetitive waiting to which Michener refers.

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