A New View on Musicals: The Lincoln Center’s South Pacific

In Los Angeles Theatre on June 8, 2010 at 7:30 pm

I am always a bit wary of going to see musicals.  Don’t get me wrong, I have full respect for the genre and I love me some Sondheim, but scarring musical experience has lead me to uphold certain prejudices.  Hokey smiles and random-acts-of-song just don’t do it for me.

However, the Los Angeles tour of the Lincoln Center’s South Pacific disproved me in these notions.  It was a high-energy blitz of spectacle backed by triple-threat talent and excellent comedic timing. The musical itself is a masterpiece with gorgeous music and great characters, but a great performance with well-rounded talent can never be guaranteed. In past musicals I have seen, I have often found that at least one of the three components—singing, dancing, and acting—suffers at the expense of the others.  I have seen many a show with, say, spectacular singing and dancing but migraine inducing acting.  But the performers in South Pacific excelled in all three areas, humbling my stereotypical preconceptions.

What particularly surprised me was the strength of the comedic timing.  I hold comedy very near to my heart and have no tolerance for those who desecrate it with bad timing.  Comedy is a delicate and precise art form, and as little as one half-second can determine whether the joke works or not. However, director Bartlett Sher ensured that the whole cast was on point. Carmen Cusack as Nellie Forbush was a natural comedienne with her sense of timing, working her moments to their full draw before releasing a bull’s-eye punch line.  Rod Gilfry also impressed as Emile de Becque, his world-class baritone vibrato (an invigorating massage for my ear drums) backed by strong character intention. A particular favorite of mine was Keala Settle as the hilarious Bloody Mary. Her character work was brilliant, from her hefty waddle to her English-distorting accent, and her deep, rich voice was a pleasure to listen to.

The ensemble delivered a vivacious performance as the sailors flipped and flew across the stage, testosterone pumping. Matthew Saldivar’s Luther Billis, the impulsive entrepreneur of the fleet, was heartwarming in his ridiculous antics, and his sincerity permeated his tough Brooklyn accent.

Aside from some distracting lighting choices, I have very few complaints about the production.  Michael Yeargan’s set was marvelous, with set pieces flying in and out of scenes in a seamless, choreographed dance. Catherine Zuber’s costumes were vibrantly colored and enhanced the personalities of the characters.  Overall, the show greatly exceeded my expectations and set a high bar for musicals I see in the future.

South Pacific is running at the Ahamanson Theatre in Los Angeles until July 17.


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