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.