Irving — From the moment musical director Jay Dias signals the rich 38-piece orchestra to dive into the overture to South Pacific, the opening night audience at Lyric Stage is swept into an evening of melodic romantic songs and earthy humor, set against darkly destructive themes of racial fear and hatred. The 33-member cast, under Len Pfluger’s exquisite direction fills the stage with rich singing, exuberant dancing and compelling acting that carry you to the beaches of another world, and into the midst of GIs serving in World War II.
Lyric Stage’s South Pacific—its fifth full-orchestra revival of the five major Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals—is a thrilling, heart-wrenching trip you won’t want to miss.
The Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical, based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific, dramatizes not only the romance of the magical setting, but the grief and ugliness of society’s prohibition. Interracial marriage was a crime in America until the law was struck down nearly 50 years ago, but still a criminal act when the show premiered on Broadway in 1949.
Cockeyed optimist Ensign Nellie Forbush (Janelle Lutz), the Army nurse from Little Rock, falls for Emile de Becque (Christopher Sanders), a rich and handsome French planter who has made a good life for himself on this beautiful Polynesian island. Nellie declares to all on the island, “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” until she learns that the two charming children (Parker Weathersby and Emma Le) she meets at his plantation home are his own, and that their late mother was a Polynesian woman. Suddenly the glorious soaring of two hearts on “Some Enchanted Evening” is in a tailspin.
The parallel love affair between Lt. Joseph Cable (Anthony Fortino) and the native girl Liat (delicately lovely Lia Kerkman) is also threatened. Cable meets the love of his life on the nearby off-limits island. “Bali Ha’i” is celebrated in alluring song by the island entrepreneur Bloody Mary (an earthy, hard-eyed Sally Soldo), a matchmaking mama seeking an American husband for her exquisite daughter. Fortino’s clear tenor voice swells with tenderness in his discovery of love in “Younger than Springtime,” and takes on a rigid steeliness in “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” his explanation of how racial prejudice and fear is ingrained at an early age in Princeton graduates and sweet Arkansas girls alike.
At the heart of the show is the overwhelming magnetism that must happen between Emile and Nellie, lovers from two different cultures and generations drawn inevitably together. Lutz’s big-eyed, glowing star-quality has never shone more brightly. She’s funny and sassy as she heads for the shower, shampoo in hand, singing “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair.” Her Nellie is a bundle of warmth and vibrating joy in all her songs, her crystal voice wrapping deliciously around the love-struck lyrics of “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy.”
In virile baritone Sanders, Lutz has a full-blooded male matinee idol to sing to and sing with. They are love’s characters made flesh as he enfolds her in his arms in the reprise of “Some Enchanted Evening.” Sander’s Emile is a show unto himself in his deeply felt rendering of “This Nearly Was Mine.” As he draws close to the edge of the stage, the big hall becomes as small and intimate as I’ve ever felt it. Swoon, sigh, applaud—in any order.
George Bernard Shaw’s cheeky definition of an American musical as “a kind of play where everybody sings and nobody can sing” has not a shred of reality in this classy production. Everybody can sing—and dance and act. The Thanksgiving Follies is the perfect placing of a hilarious show within the show, when war and love tensions are mounting on the island. One of my favorite moments is Sonny Franks as seaman Luther Billis doing his hesitant bump-and-grind to “Honey Bun” with Nellie and the ensemble.
Michael Yeargan’s original scenic design opens with a huge typed manuscript of the first pages of Michener’s book, and features floor-to-ceiling banks of blinds, filtering the sun-drenched light and reflecting indigenous palm trees. When the blinds are drawn up, the forbidden, magical Bali Ha’i beckons seductively. Both the Tony Award-winning sets and Catherine Zuber’s sexy 40’s costumes were originally designed for the 2008 Broadway revival from Lincoln Center.
The show runs three hours, including a 15-minute intermission, but it flies by all too soon, and you walk out singing “Happy Talk” and thinking about checking on tickets to see it again next weekend.