Anderson Davis and Sumie Maeda star in the Tony-winning revival… (Peter Coombs, Handout photo )
"South Pacific," the 1949 musical by Rodgers & Hammerstein, enjoyed the distinction not only of being one of the most successful shows on Broadway — nearly 2,000 performances, numerous hit songs, several Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize — but also one of the hardest to revive there. The first full-fledged revival didn't come along until 2008, but the wait was worth it.
That production by the Lincoln Center Theater proved to be a revelation. Without the slightest trace of superficiality or trendy deconstruction, this "South Pacific" reconfirmed all of the strengths in the original, including the head-on examination of racial prejudice that was so far ahead of its time, and effectively minimized its occasional weaknesses.
The national tour of that Tony-winning revival, complete with Bartlett Sher's penetrating direction, Michael Yeargan's brilliantly detailed sets and David Holder's richly atmospheric lighting, has arrived at the Kennedy Center just in time to heat up the holidays. It's a welcome opportunity to bask in the warmth of Richard Rodgers' score, and feel the emotional pull of the story that lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan fashioned from James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific."
One asset of the production can't be emphasized enough — the luxury of a good-size orchestra. The nearly criminal downgrading and downsizing of pit bands for Broadway musicals has gone on for so long that it may be hard for some to remember what the real deal can sound like.
At the Lincoln Center Theater, the decision to use a 30-piece ensemble elevated the whole venture. It even guaranteed the first hearty ovation at performances; in that intimate venue, a covering over the pit slid away to reveal all hardworking musicians during the overture and the audience invariably broke into applause at the sight.
No such effect is possible at the Kennedy Center Opera House, where, curiously, the house lights are left on during the overture, practically encouraging folks to chatter through it (which they did the night I attended); same for the entr'acte later on.
But as the show unfolds, the sonic value of the opera house orchestra (26 players are used here) comes through powerfully, and music director Ted Sperling ensures that the vivid coloring of Robert Russell Bennett's orchestrations can be keenly felt.
The original 2008 cast starred Kelli O'Hara as the naive Ensign Nellie Forbush, who finds herself on a Polynesian isle in the midst of World War II, and Paulo Szot as Emile de Becque, the transplanted French plantation owner who captures, loses and reclaims Nellie's heart. They achieved a remarkable chemistry that the touring production's leads don't quite match.
Carmen Cusack takes the role of Nellie. Although she pushes the hick accent a little thickly, her acting, quite close in inflection to O'Hara's, brings the character winningly to life. Her sweet, steady singing is another plus.
If you're expecting someone in the tall-dark-handsome mold of Szot as Emile (not to mention Ezio Pinza in the 1949 premiere or Rossano Brazzi in the 1958 movie version), you may be startled to find someone who looks more like Dr. Phil. But David Pittsinger ultimately convinces, thanks in large measure to a bass voice that spins out golden tones and sculpts those tones into eloquent phrases. His account of "This Nearly Was Mine" justifiably brings down the house.
Anderson Davis offers dynamic acting skills and a sensitive voice in the role of Lt. Joseph Cable, whose journey of self-discovery gives the plot extra depth. Davis deftly puts across one of the great message songs in the Broadway canon, "You've Got to be Carefully Taught."
Jodi Kimura makes a strong Bloody Mary, but also reveals the softer side of the brusque islander in subtle touches. Timothy Gulan does lively work as Billis, the precursor to TV's Sgt. Bilko. John Bolger is engaging as Capt. Brackett, handling the teary moment in the officer's speech to the sailors in the beach in Act 2 with John Boehner-worthy inflection. The rest of the supporting cast is well-stocked with vibrant, nimble performers.
Although the vast opera house limits the kind of immediacy achieved in the Lincoln Center Theater, this remarkable staging is still able to grab you firmly as it explores and illuminates the heart of a great American musical.
If you go
"South Pacific" runs through Jan. 16 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington. Tickets are $39 to $150. Call 800-444-1324 or go to kennedy-center.org for showtimes.