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Theatre Review (LA): South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Ahmanson Theatre

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Rodgers and Hammerstein only get better with age: in this age of screechy rock musicals to hear a Rodgers and Hammerstein score is like getting into a hot tub and getting a massage. The older I get the happier I feel that they ever existed. They set the stage, literally, for the modern musical, and they wrote beautiful music that furthered the story and had social relevance.


One such musical is South Pacific, currently gracing the Ahmanson stage. The production was all the rage in New York, desperate for a musical hit, while the touring production couldn’t match the Vivian Beaumont as a space, with the sets looking less than fantastic on the flat Ahmanson proscenium. Nevertheless, the production shone through and will undoubtedly be the hit of the season in Los Angeles.


The cast was first rate and in some cases may have equaled or surpassed the New York cast. Despite the proscenium's flatness, the sets by Michael Yeargan evoked a certain magic in their use of the purple tinged sunsets seen through a series of huge shuttered panels. Of course, the music was glorious, and Bartlet Sher's direction and the brilliant musical staging by Christopher Gattelli seemed fresh and alive.


The cast was fantastic, lead by the remarkable Carmen Cusack as Nellie Forbush. She looked the part, and, more importantly, acted and sang, putting her own memorable stamp on the role. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She made me laugh and cry. She was helped by Emile de Becque, a local favorite and Rodney Gilfry, who was deeply moving in all of his songs, especailly in “This Nearly Was Mine”. He also made me cry.


Anderson Davis and Sumie Maeda were the young lovers. Davis has a beautiful sweet voice, perfect for cable. Matthew Saldivar was a very funny yet touching Billis. I even liked “Honey Bun," which has never been my favorite song. Keala Settle was a superb and different Bloody Mary. She wasn’t cute, but she was funny with her cynical line readings and her desperation to find a soldier for her daughter. She played Bloody Mary not in the best of health so her urgency was quite telling.


I think South Pacific holds a very special place in my heart. It was, after all, of my parent’s era, a celebration, of sorts, of the greatest generation. Every time I see South Pacific I feel like I have been privileged to share in a time my parents knew and survived as victors. Inspiring then and now that we still find ourselves fighting two wars. I have only one caveat and that is the sound mix in the Ahmanson: the speakers made the music sound canned at times. Thank God for the voices. South Pacific will be docked at the Ahmanson until July 17th. See it!

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About Robert Machray