If ever there were a musical that represented what Michael Donald Edwards, producing artistic director of the Asolo Rep, has been striving for in the past few years — “The American Character — Our Lives on Stage” — it’s got to be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” Rocketing onto Broadway in 1949, just four years after the end of World War II, “South Pacific” attacks issues of America, from patriotism to racism, and it does it with a music score that took their landmark work in “Oklahoma” and “Carousel” to a new dimension.
On opening night at the Asolo, we met several people who’d never seen this classic before and their reactions put me in mind of what it must have been like to be in the audience opening night 65 years ago when no one had yet heard the romance of “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Younger Than Springtime,” and “This Nearly Was Mine,” or the hilarity and exuberance of “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “Honey Bun” and “A Wonderful Guy,” or the radical, barrier-breaking foresight of “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.”
I was five when I saw my first “South Pacific” starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. The most recent was at Lincoln Center about five years ago. But for sheer perfection, musically, dramatically, scenically and artistically, the Asolo wins the prize.
Kelly Felthous is the closest singing-actress to Mary Martin’s model I’ve come across. She has a sweet innocence that gets knocked on its ear when she discovers she’s not only fallen for a Frenchman who lives on a lonely island, but that Frenchman has a checkered past, having killed a man in France, and having lived with a Polynesian (called “colored”) woman and had two children with her. All the naïveté of Felthous’ Nellie Forbush is beautifully crafted into her singing and acting, and while her unworldliness remains throughout the show, you can see her grow in understanding and integrity through the lyrics Hammerstein gave Rodgers to paint a full-blown woman of intellect.
Ben Davis is a younger Emile De Becque than we’re used to seeing, but he’s also the most sympathetic of them. It’s a little hard to grasp the love he develops for Nellie in such a short time, a love that changes his life. But because Davis is such a consummate actor with a voice that reminds us of John Raitt and Alfred Drake, we weep for him as Nellie flees his home at the thought of being involved with a man so foreign to her way of life.
The Asolo’s Bloody Mary is taken on by Loretta Ables Sayre, who’s played the role innumerable times, including the Lincoln Center production. She uses her honeyed voice as a great actor uses the tools she has to be the sarcastic, snappish, prickly person Mary is without ever losing the ability to charm those around her like a hypnotist with exotic powers.
And Anthony Festa’s sweet, sincere tenor is perfect for his honest, uncontrived portrayal of Lt. Joe Cable.
Brad Haak, with permission from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, orchestrated and arranged the music for this production so that fewer than 10 musicians were needed for this enormous score and, for the most part, he did a fine job. We missed the blare of the brass but not as much as we thought we would. The Overture, so intrinsic to the play, itself, lost a little when some of the music was cut and the harmonies inexplicably changed. But he did a fine job with all the underscoring (music played under dialogue), Rodgers wrote for this music-drama.
Music Director William Waldrop kept his small forces in check throughout, making the most of the winds and percussion so they were, properly, an important part of the action on stage, and being sure he always kept proper pace with the conversations on stage, as if music and talk were perfectly choreographed. Some tempos were definitely different from those we’ve heard in the past — “This Nearly Was Mine” was so slow it took nearly twice the time (and breath) it originally took — but they worked for the production and may have set a new standard for future singers.
“South Pacific” is such a magnificently constructed piece of music theater, it’s impossible to separate the music from the play; the acting from the singing. And the Asolo production, with its magnificent staging and music-making, enriches and fortifies “The American Character” with the spirit Rodgers and Hammerstein intended 65 years ago. What a great anniversary gift.