This past Sunday, the critically acclaimed and (presumably) financially successful revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific closed after 996 performances. That's less than half of the run for the original production, which came in at 1925 performances, but it's certainly a respectable number, especially considering that the revival was originally only supposed to run for a few months.
Just prior to closing, South Pacific aired live on PBS stations under the auspices of Live From Lincoln Center. This gave me a chance to evaluate the production, and the piece itself, afresh. Regular readers will recall that I consider South Pacific the most overrated musical of all time, and that the revival did nothing to change that view. (Read my review.) After watching the PBS broadcast, I still feel that way, but I will admit that I found more to appreciate in the show this time around.
For one, the show was making more dramatic sense this time. I've never quite understood how Nellie can go from singing "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" to "(I'm in Love With) A Wonderful Guy" in a matter of mere minutes. But this time, mostly through the effectiveness of Kelli O'Hara's nuanced performance as Nellie, the sequence of emotions seemed more plausible.
I've complained before about the lack of extended musical sequences in South Pacific. The show has always felt too choppy, too stop-and-sing, especially coming from the two men who rendered plodding show structure obsolete. "Honey Bun" is simply an embarrassment, not because of the song itself, which is fine for what it is. But it represents one of the only examples I can think of when Hammerstein and Rodgers included a song for a song's sake. It serves no dramatic or thematic purpose: it's just there for entertainment. Again, Rodgers and Hammerstein were the men who obviated that kind of song. (Oh, and that reprise. When the soldiers and the nurses are walking in slow motion singing "Honey Bun." WTF?)
But this time I was captivated by the finale of act 1, which features a smart series of mini-reprises ("Wonderful Guy," "Twin Soliloquies," "Cockeyed Optimist," "Wash That Man," and "Some Enchanted Evening"), which effectively summarizes how we've arrived at this point in the show, and underscores the emotional subtext of the relationship between Nellie and Emile.
The best sequence remains the "Carefully Taught" scene, followed by Emile's moving intermezzo ("I was cheated before, and I'm cheated again, by a mean little world of mean little men..."), which then leads into the stunning "This Nearly Was Mine." This is truly thrilling theater, and for me it hints at what the show could have been. Paulo Szot's delivery here was masterful. I was particularly moved by his pianissimo delivery during the second verse. Szot seems to have gained a considerable (and distracting) amount of weight since the show opened, but the emotional impact of his singing remains undiminished.
But, on the whole, South Pacific remains hampered by labored plot machinations and emotion-sapping exposition. The pathos of the show disappears when the book stops to address the dull, obligatory military storyline. Every time those frickin' maps descended from the fly space, I audibly groaned. When we're watching Nellie and Emile, the show works. When they're not on stage, it falls flat.
When I saw South Pacific live, it was early in previews, and it seemed at that point that Loretta Ables Sayre and Danny Burstein hadn't yet grown into their respective roles as Bloody Mary and Luther Billis. I'm happy to report that both seem to have progressed over the course of the run into far richer and more effective performances. Sayre was a lot more layered and engaging, and Burstein brought a lot more of the wonderful individuality and creativity that he's exhibited in previous roles, particularly that of Adolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone. There were a few times that Burstein's performance seemed a bit too close to a Bert Lahr caricature for my tastes, but those moments were thankfully fleeting.
The major hole in the cast for me was Andrew Samonsky as Lieutenant Cable. I found Matthew Morrison bland and forgettable, but Morrison's performance was masterful compared to that of Samonsky, who came off unbearably smug and mannered beyond reason. His gait seemed borrowed from a bad John Wayne impersonator, and he had this annoying mannerism of sniffing and humming in rapid succession when he was trying to be sardonic. On the whole, Samonsky made me sort of glad that...well, let's just say that I found the denouement of the show ironically satisfying.
I recognize that South Pacific fans are legion and ardent, and I certainly wish them well. But after numerous earnest attempts at connecting with the show, which significantly predate the production at hand, I remain unconverted as to most of its supposed charms.
Who can explain it? Who can tell you why?