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TV Review: South Pacific Live from Lincoln Center on PBS

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Sometimes a little television gem comes your way when you least expect it. Such was the case in getting to see South Pacific last night on PBS, broadcast live from the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center here in New York. With the show ending its two and a half year run this Sunday, it seemed to be a perfect time to let home audiences in on this amazing revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 classic.

One of the wonderful things about this revival is that it is the first in New York since the original run on Broadway 61 years ago, so unlike many other shows that have had multiple reincarnations, this seems particularly fresh and yet surprisingly timely. With its depiction of life in a war-torn world and disturbing elements of racial intolerance, South Pacific was obviously ahead of its time in 1949 and a good reminder to us all that some things still need changing today.

Anyone who has seen the film South Pacific on television over the years, starring Mitzi Gaynor and Rosanno Brazzi in the lead roles, will remember the story of love and loss on a small island in the middle of World War II. What is pleasantly surprising here in the stage production is that Kelli O’Hara as American nurse Nellie Forbush and Tony Award winner Paulo Szot as wealthy plantation owner Emile DeBecque impress with their performances and seem much more well suited for their roles than their cinematic counterparts.

All the classic elements of a great Broadway musical are here, and the set design (by Tony Award-winning designer Michael Yeargan) is so fluid with a backing screen changing colors and images to match the moods and settings of each scene, and a retractable stage reveals a full 30-piece orchestra. While nothing can compare to being in the theater itself, the television viewing experience is a fine one. The fact that this was a live performance also enhanced the excitement of watching this production as it unfolded, and during the intermission we were even treated to Alan Alda doing interviews, most notably with the daughters of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

All the great songs sounds better than ever; even “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” with all its connotations of anti-feminism, comes off well and fits perfectly into the show as it always has. My pulse fluttered during “Some Enchanted Evening,” and it made me understand the power and allure of this musical, reminding us that true love can hit someone at any time in a crowded room, even during the midst of war in a far away place.

The story is still powerful as we see Forbush first fall in love with DeBecque and then, after she discovers that he is a widower and has two mixed-race children, refuse his proposal and run off into the night. The second couple, as these musicals always have one, is Lieutenant Joe Cable (Andrew Samonsky) and the beautiful island girl Liat (Li Jun Li). Here too the deep-set prejudices Cable brings with him to the war disrupt their romance and threaten any chances for true happiness.

One only has to really listen to the words of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” to know the strength of the message sent here. In essence, as powerful as a soliloquy in a Shakespearean play, the song is meant to reveal Lt. Cable’s issues with race, but we can also understand that love, if it is meant to conquer all or not, can in the end just break someone’s heart.

It must be noted that this broadcast of South Pacific is as good as it gets in terms of theater coming to television. Only the other night I was watching Animal Crackers starring the Marx Brothers, and I could see how obvious it was that their stage show had been brought to film in an awkward but still hilarious manner. In this viewing of South Pacific, there was nothing apparently wrong with anything, the camera angles and sound all providing “a you are there” kind of feel, and even a brief glimpse of the audience in certain scenes only enhanced the moment as authentic.

If you are coming to New York this weekend or live here, there are four more days left for you to get to the theater and see this fantastic show. If not, there is always the promise of a repeat broadcast on PBS. Either way, try to find a way to see this production for a truly unique experience suitable for the entire family.

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana's stories, articles, and poems have been published in literary magazines and online. His books 'A Death in Prague' (2002), 'Move' (2003), 'The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories' (2005), and 'Like a Passing Shadow' (2009) are available in print, online, and as e-books. His latest books 'If the Fates Allow: New York Christmas Stories,' 'Garden of Ghosts,' and 'Flashes in the Pan' are available exclusively on Amazon. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated on writing mostly fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as a faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with 'Blogcritics Magazine' since July 2005 and has written well over 500 articles; previously co-head sports editor, he now is a Culture and Society editor. Having traveled extensively, Victor has visited six continents and intends to get to Antarctica someday where he figures a few ideas for new stories await him.
  • Benjolina

    I think the decision not to release a DVD is not only outdated, but clearly a mistake. I don’t see the reason behind it.

  • Sandra

    Does anybody know where I can purchase this?
    I mean a DVD of it!!

    [Personal contact info deleted]

  • Linda

    Allison, my late father was also a Carlson’s Raider. I am pretty sure (but not positive) the patch they had on Cable’s left arm was a Raider Patch: blue background, 5 stars and scull in red diamond. Did you notice that?

    I thought it was a wonderful production.

  • Stanley Golanty

    Georgio Tozzi sang the role in the movie version and is still alive.

  • Scott

    Sadly, this will not be released as a DVD. There is a restriction in the Lincoln Center contracts that prohibit any type of reproduction or resale of performances at the center. Now if somebody would torrent it…. hint hint

  • Lori

    Your review was great. I, too, watch South Pacific on PBS the other night and loved it. I actually had bought tickets to that performance, but did not make the trip to New York when I found out that Matt Morrison was not going to be able to reprise his role as Lt. Cable. And, even though Andrew Samonsky was fine, he just doesn’t have the voice or stage presence that Matt has. I’ve seen clips of Matt in this role on YouTube, and, to me, no one could embody this character like him. Kelly O’Hara and Paul Szot were brilliant. I am so glad that I was able to watch this performance.

  • Dmatt, I thought the leather jacket was odd, but could it be they wore the jackets when they went up in the planes? My Dad was in WWII but in Europe, so I don’t have any personal stories or photos about S. Pacific.

    Allison, I think that was part of the original show: to honor those guys who served. In this production it certainly came off that way again.

  • Allison

    My grandfather was one of Carson’s Raiders, and received the Navy Star for his bravery on Makin Island. Additionally he served on Gualala Canal, Iwo Jima, and many more pacific postings during and after the war. I felt that this production, the book especially, really honors the men who served in the Pacific campaign. A blessing all around last night.

  • Dmatt

    My dad was a Seabee in WWII who spent the first couple of years of the war at a seaplane base on a tiny sandspit in the Pacific called Johnson Island, and the last year of it on Guam. He saw South Pacific on Broadway a few years after the war and it was his all time favorite musical. I thought the version of South Pacific I saw last night was outstanding.I thought the girl who played Nellie Forbush was simply the best. I can’t imagine that Mary Martin herself was ever any better in that role. However, the actor who played the French planter didn’t have the voice of Enzio Pinza. And oh yeah, why was Lt. Cable dressed in a leather jacket? This was the SOUTH PACIFIC, not the north Pacific. In all the wartime photos I have of my dad from Guam he was dressed in Marine jumpsuit type fatigues soaked completely through with sweat. Artistic license, I guess.

  • Allison

    I thoroughly enjoyed the production….laughed and cried through the whole thing…but, having listened to the cast recording of this revival, I found this “lutennen cable” lacking….his voice seemed thin compared to Morrison’s rich honey-sweet tenor. Glee better be good this year….I’m just saying is all….

  • lindad

    Victor– i’m late in the game and am only repeating others but i loved your review. It echoed precisely what my husband and i felt while watching this beautiful production. What a wonderful treasure of a program. And I agree with the last comment — Matthew Morrison would have been an added treat! Thank you for what you wrote — it allowed last night’s treat to linger another day!

  • Yes, I remember that, Handy. I read that they tried to get him to come back for this performance but his Glee schedule did not permit that. I would have liked to see him in that role.

  • Glee’s Matthew Morrison was in the cast when the production opened. They could have used him to boost the ratings last night, even on PBS. [He was Lt. Cable.]

  • Robert Zoller

    South Pacific was come upon by accidental surfing. It was probably the best ever…and as reported by others, quite timely in message. The fellow playing Emil deBecque was probably the most believable as he seemed so age appropriate. For an “old” duffer he was still full of sex, strength, and believability. I will always fail to understand the chemistry between the characters Cable and the Tonka woman Liat. I think it was even “fuzzier” in this production and not due to the actors looks either. Maybe it was intended to never be fleshed out. All in all…a good production of high entertainment.

  • Thanks, Handy and Peter. That clarification really helps.

    Wanda, I don’t know for sure, but I know it did sound almost exactly like Brazzi in the film version.

  • wanda mccullough

    Victor Lana

    Don’t know and certainly have no way of checking it — but — the minute it began i made the connection — certainly not earth shattering — just interesting.

  • Clifford Hufman

    Yes, it was nice but the chemistry between the principals was in the refrigerator. The singing though professional, was in the shadow of the towering concert version of 2006 starring rian Stokes Mitchell, Reba McEntire and Lillias White. Certainly the staging was stupendous.

  • MariannaO

    I saw and loved the production when it opened two years ago… it was great to see it on TV last night. However, I must say I was disappointed that they didn’t really show the scrim containing Michener’s typewritten words, and didn’t truly convey how dramatic it is to be in the audience when the stage rolls back to reveal the orchestra playing the overture.

  • Peter O’Malley

    The New York City Opera did “South Pacific” (also at Lincoln Center, but not a “Broadway” venue) in the 1980s, which, I guess, does not count either.

  • The New York State Theater [now renamed the David Koch Theater] is the home of New York City Opera and New York City Ballet. It’s larger than 1000 seats, but not officially a “Broadway” house, since it’s not often used for plays.

    The Vivian Beaumont Theater, where last night’s wonderful performance took place, is just for stage shows and is officially a Broadway house.

    So the 1967 production was not a “Broadway revival,” but the current one is.

  • Wendy

    Victor, check this out: “…the first major revival was the one undertaken by its composer, Richard Rodgers, in 1967 as part of his stewardship of Music Theater at Lincoln Center, an organization presenting limited summer engagements of legendary musicals at the New York State Theater in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts complex.”

  • Sandy

    Florence Henderson was indeed in a production at Lincoln Center in 1967. But I don’t know if that theatre was considered Broadway. A “Broadway” theatre has to have 500 seats or more.

  • Oh, Wanda, I listened to it again, and I see what you mean about it sounding like Brazzi, but I don’t see why they would do it. Remember, Brazzi didn’t even sing in the movie (his voice was dubbed).

  • Wendy, from my source materials, I learned that it was the first revival. If you say you saw it, well, that’s not correct then. I’ll have to do a little more digging on that one!

  • Wendy

    I don’t understand the claim that this was the first Broadway revival. I saw Florence Henderson in the NY State Theater at Lincoln Center in a production in the late 60’s.

  • wanda mccullough

    I watched South Pacific twice last evening — it’s been a favorite of mine for many years — Do you know if they used the radio broadcast from E de B relaying Lt. Joe Cable’s death from the movie version –when I heard it, it seemed as if it were word for word from the movie — and the voice seemed to be that of Rossano Brazzi.

  • Vic, I caught this last night quite by accident (the serendipity of channel-surfing!) and share your opinion completely. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen the film version, and I’d nearly forgotten how wonderful the music is. Thanks for a very nice review of a very good show.