Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Another enchanted evening

(David Pittsinger as Emile and Carmen Cusack as Nellie in the national tour of "South Pacific." Photo by Craig Schwartz.)

The view back from more than half a century is an ideal span for testing certain truths, such as the enduring grandeur of "South Pacific." When the original road company of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic premiered on April 24, 1950, at Cleveland's Public Music Hall, it was a publicist's nirvana. The show managed to invade the front page of The Plain Dealer with not one, but two stories next to an article about President Truman's battle with Commies. The already-legendary composer and lyricist were in attendance to amp up the excitement. Hanna Theater manager Milton Krantz wailed to the media about the $738,000 of box-office lucre that had to be refunded to those tortured souls who couldn't score a ticket to Bali Hai.

On the home front, a family legend was founded on the story of this chronicler's 23-year-old mother, who had to view the impassioned wooings of Emile and Nellie reduced to ants from the last row of the cavernous Public Music Hall. It is a testament to the American dream that one generation later her son was able to view the same rapture just half-way back on the main floor at the Palace Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. To quote from William McDermott's 1950 Plain Dealer review: "The essential thing is that this performance of 'South Pacific' is first-rate by any standard. I would put it down as the best musical show and the most suitable performance since 'Show Boat' opened here many years ago preliminary to its Broadway engagement."

The 2011 touring production, based on Bartlett Sher's acclaimed Lincoln Center staging, illuminates the lasting truths of McDermott's appraisal. Sher is too canny to alter perfection. Instead, he has simply polished every nuance to set off its perpetual sparkle. Whereas other productions of "South Pacific" through the years have been star vehicles for aging matinee idols, this one makes the show itself the center of attention. When reviewing Janet Blair in the touring production in 1950, McDermott commented that "she hasn't quite got the mettlesomeness of Mary Martin. But she has a magic of her own."

(Rodgers and Hammerstein, at rear, try to wash the first three Nellies - Mary Martin, Janet Blair and Martha Wright - out of their hair in the early 1950s. Photo by Corbis-Bettmann.)

Flash forward six decades and the opposite proves true. Carmen Cusack plays Nellie in the 2011 tour with a delightful Southern mettlesomeness that would do Martin proud. There were two Nellies to be devoutly wished for: the one that happened in 1949 at the Majestic Theatre (Martin) and the one that didn't in the film version ( Doris Day). Cusack's feisty charisma makes us temporarily forget the incandescence of Martin and the loss of Day - and helps us purge the synthetic aftertaste of Mitzi Gaynor's performance in the bizarrely hued 1958 movie. Ironically, Sher's production, with its stunning transitions, lighting and texture, is far more cinematic than Joshua Logan's adequate but stiff film realization.

(Mitzi Gaynor, performing "Honey Bun" in the 1958 movie version of "South Pacific," makes one yearn for Mary Martin or Doris Day. Photo courtesy of Green Isle Productions.)

If Paulo Szot's Broadway Emile suggested a baritonal Clark Gable, David Pittsinger's sumptous basso in the touring production suggests Boris Godunov transplanted to an island just around the corner from Bali Hai. Pittsinger, with his cosmopolitan flair, contrasts splendidly with Cusack's naive buoyancy. Pound for pound, the rest of the cast equals the felicities of their Lincoln Center counterparts. For anyone who's ever failed to comprehend the magical ability of musical theater to illuminate universal human experience, one only has to watch the smitten Nellie Forbush throw her straw hat in the air and do a cartwheel while singing "I'm in love with a wonderful guy." 

It seems like a perfect synchronicity that after 40 years, Hammerstein's protege, Stephen Sondheim, accomplished equal musical euphoria out of a much darker corner of the human psyche. In "Assassins," which Lakeland Civic Theatre  is performing in Kirtland, we have the maniacal John Wilkes Booth trying to justify his nefarious act against Abraham Lincoln. Whereas "South Pacific" is musical theater as grand storytelling, "Assassins" is musical theater as a thesis about the need for attention that drives people to kill Presidents. "Assassins" is as great as it is perverse. Unfortunately, director Martin Friedman has only one trump card in his production, Scott Esposito's Booth. In every other aspect, Friedman only manages a flicker where a conflagration is needed.

"South Pacific" runs through Sunday at the Palace Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

"Assassins" runs through Sunday at Lakeland Community College. For tickets, call 440-525-7526.

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