Rodgers & Hammerstein - South Pacific

Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont, Friday January 8 2010

Conductor: Fred Lassen. Director: Bartlett Sher. Sets: Michael Yeargan. Costumes: Catherine Zuber. Lighting: Donald Holder. Ensign Nellie Forbush: Laura Osnes. Emile de Becque: Paulo Szot. Luther Billis: Danny Burstein. Bloody Mary: Loretta Ables Sayre. Lt. Joseph Cable: Andrew Samonsky. Capt. George Brackett: Murphy Guyer. Cmdr. William Harbison: Sean Cullen.

It’s always interesting for me, as a regular operagoer, to see a musical. "Opera, when everything comes together […] (which, as we all know, is rare) becomes the greatest invention on earth." So writes a friend of an acquaintance on Facebook. It’s rare for it all to come together and as the lights go down we can’t even be sure the principals will be able to sing the notes. Yet on Broadway (yes, of course, it’s another business and there are other factors) not only can you be sure they’ll be able to sing their parts (I was once told they are fined if ever out of tune by someone I claimed, no doubt wrongly, had done so), but they’ll also be able to act and dance as well. It may sound naive but I remain amazed by the way, in musicals, everyone down to the last extra is in character and uncannily natural-looking from start to finish. They smile, for example, not as if they’ve been ordered to smile or else, but as if they’re having a good time. It amazed me even more in this South Pacific which, in the Vivian Beaumont Theater, is very nearly in the round and there they are, singing, acting and dancing (or in the case of the men, leaping and cartwheeling) up a storm right under your nose, yet apparently as if you weren’t there, gawping, a yard or so away.

This was made possible by a large, round stage apron that slid out from the "normal" stage almost to cover the orchestra, Bayreuth-style. The "sets" as such were simple: slatted wooden blinds, or a wall of French windows for de Becque’s house, in front of a beach, a tall palm tree and a distant view of Bali Hai. The props were, on the other hand, large and realistic: a warplane, plenty of oil barrels and Billis’s laundry; the shower; the Thanksgiving stage made from two flatbed trucks rear-to-rear… plus a few smaller items like desks and chairs and filing cabinets with a backdrop of maps, or a table, chairs and a drinks trolley at de Becque’s. Scene changes were incredibly efficient, helped by multiple exits down stairs leading under the audience. The golden lighting, filtered through the slats, took me instantly back to the Straits of Singapore. The costumes were slick and sleek and beautifully in period (with nurses looking exactly like the Andrews Sisters at the end). And the production, overall, brought out what my New York hosts called the "edginess" that Rodgers & Hammerstein seem always to have wanted in their works: a dark, ambiguous, not altogether likeable Bloody Mary; a Cable strutting and superior at first, brooding and ambivalent later… The chorus members looked mostly like "ordinary folks" and the fun was more natural and casual than in the film (e.g. the hair-washing scene or the guys’ fooling around). There were subtleties in the staging: the black guys were usually together and set apart from the whites. No more heavy-handed than that, but effective. In my neighbour’s view, overall it was "less soppy."

The cast was strong. Early reviewers seem to have found Laura Osnes lacking in acting experience, but at this stage there's no sign of that. She's doll-like and charming, slim and slight in stature and voice, a little lightwieght for the part and with a tendency to attack phrases from just under the note and an overall sound that is, to my ear, pop-influenced; but then I hear the same in Kiri Te Kanawa or Renée Fleming. Paulo Szot was flawless. Andrew Samonsky had one of those piercing, Broadway tenor voices that could do with a bit more rondeur, but all in all there was nothing or no-one to complain about. The contrast with Turandot right next door, four nights before, couldn't have been more bewildering.

The show was followed by a decent dinner at Boulud's just opposite with good cocktails, a great Pommard and great friends. It would be corny to say it was an "enchanted evening" and I certainly didn't fall in love with a stranger even in that crowded room, but it was a great deal better by far than Monday at the Met followed by Fiorello's...

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