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