Bart Sher's 'South Pacific' revival cuts to the core

In the touring version of the Tony-winning production, Sher, former artistic director of Intiman, rediscovers the disturbing wartime material lurking under the sugar-coated familiarity of the tunes.
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Carmen Cusack stars as Ensign Forbush

In the touring version of the Tony-winning production, Sher, former artistic director of Intiman, rediscovers the disturbing wartime material lurking under the sugar-coated familiarity of the tunes.

Bartlett Sher's highly touted revival of South Pacific has a lot more on its mind than an evening's enchantment.

A national tour based on the Tony-bestrewn Lincoln Center production opened its three-week Seattle run Sunday night (Jan. 31) at the 5th Avenue Theatre. Sher has been closely involved in directing the new cast for the tour, which was launched last fall in San Francisco.

I use the directorial modifier "Sher's South Pacific" with caution. This is, after all, a lavish production whose considerable pleasures are driven by deftly harmonized ensemble energy, both onstage and in the pit. Still, for anyone familiar with Sher's work (whether he's dealing with Shakespeare, musical theater, or opera), the overriding choices that guide this South Pacific bear his signature.

What that boils down to is an honest confrontation with the source — in this case, the ambitious scope of the material as Rodgers and Hammerstein actually envisioned it, before the musical's hit numbers became sugar-coated by familiarity. Sher brushes away the patina of clichés and expectations that typically encrust a classic, leaving space for fresh insights to gather but making sure to ground them in a kind of commonsense theatricality. The Lincoln Center production (still in a successful, open-ended run) didn't just mark the first Broadway revival since South Pacific was originally staged in 1949. Far from a sentimental homage to a lost "golden age" of Broadway, the revival thrives on the compelling sense of connection it establishes with the source.

A lot of attention has been paid to Sher's choice to reinstate sung and spoken material for Nellie Forbush and Lt. Joseph Cable that was dropped from the 1949 production (such as Lt. Cable'ꀙs act-one number "My Girl Back Home"). True, the restorations further clarify the racial hang-ups that hamper the two Americans in their parallel love stories. There's a visual equivalent, too, in the blocking of the black Seabees — segregated even in the ensemble dance scenes — and in the rough-handed treatment of Bloody Mary.

But Sher prevents this important thread from being preachy, or self-congratulatory — much as he refuses to reduce South Pacific to a saccharine love story set in a conveniently exotic locale. What makes his revival work with such gripping immediacy is the tension Sher establishes between the intimate and epic dimensions of the story, between the urge for escapism and the realistic backdrop of war.

The pacing segues fluently between chamber drama and ensemble scenes into which the war gradually intrudes until it gains an almost mythic resonance.

Carmen Cusack's Nellie Forbush disarmingly plays her "hick" mannerisms off the patrician poise of Rod Gilfry as exiled French plantation owner Emile de Becque. Cusack is especially effective in negotiating the role'ꀙs sudden shifts of attitude between denial and helpless love. You sense she's using the cheery demeanor of her soprano — along with the dance moves that accompany "A Wonderful Guy, " as wonderfully corny as Kansas — to keep a deeper vulnerability at bay.

Gilfry's Emile nurses a wounded dignity, suggesting a need for redemption that Nellie alone can provide. However, his stilted pacing makes the character seem full of airs when he should be at his most nakedly honest. It seemed, at times, that there was a conscious choice to play up the alienation from Emile's background; if so, it detracts from the all-important connection with Nellie. In any case, Gilfry brings a rich, truly operatic baritone to the part, rendering the signature "Some Enchanted Evening" with almost desperate passion. But it's his delivery of the act-two outcry "This Nearly Was Mine" that carries more weight. A shame that the 5th Avenue Theatre's sound system was out of balance for Gilfry's powerful voice, amping it to the point of distortion.

The large ensemble cast assembled for this tour offers some fine performances. Anderson Davis's choice to play Lt. Cable as a world-weary, uptight heir to privilege seems to limit rather than illuminate the character. But his honeyed tenor reveals another persona altogether, liberated by the experience of love. Keala Settle brings a fierce edge to her Bloody Mary, her mockingly seductive poses all part of an uncompromising, Mother Courage-like cynicism. Even her daughter Liat (touchingly played by Sumie Maeda) is just a pawn.

Luther Billis gets a New Yawkified, testosterone-driven portrayal by Matthew Saldivar, but he makes a more subtly memorable connection with Cusack in the Thanksgiving Follies scene. Gerry Becker gives an avuncular turn to Capt. George Brackett.

The design, originally tailored for the thrust stage of Lincoln Center'ꀙs Vivian Beaumont Theater, has been reconfigured for a proscenium stage. Michael Yeargan's sets and Donald Holder's lighting excellently complement Sher's approach, with bamboo-like slatted blinds that fluidly transform the space between the intimate and epic. The color scheme plays up the imagery of the island as escapist fantasy (with the further escape of the volcanic "Bali Ha'i" looming in the distance), while the darkened palette of the second act makes the war an overshadowing presence.

And, also complementing Sher'ꀙs reinvestigation of the original material is the use of Robert Russell Bennett's original 1949 orchestrations, lovingly restored for this revival. For the Seattle run, Lawrence Goldberg leads the band in a warm, sumptuously phrased performance.

If you go: South Pacific runs through Feb. 21 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Ave., Seattle. Show times and ticket information available here.  

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