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Truly An Enchanted Evening

The Barbican Centre
08/15/2011 -  through October 1, 2011 (Perf. of 09/22*)
Richard Rodgers: South Pacific
Samantha Womack (Ensign Nellie Forbush), Paulo Szot (Emile De Becque), Alex Ferns (Luther Billis), Daniel Koek (Lieutenant Cable), (Bloody Mary), Elizabeth Chong (Liat)
Ted Sperling (Musical Supervisor), Jae Alexander (Musical Director)
Oscar Hammerstein II (Lyrics), Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan (Book), Bartlett Sher (Production), Michael Yeargan (Set Designer), Catherine Zuber (Costume Designer), Donald Holder (Lighting), Joe Langworth (Associate Choreographer)

P. Szot (© Simon Annand)

South Pacific, one of the jewels of American musical culture, has come to London after a long and successful 2 ½ year run at Lincoln Center in New York. And the evening was a triumph for all concerned, most especially the extraordinary baritone, Paulo Szot.

James Michener wrote Tales of the South Pacific based on his experiences in the navy during World War II. Adapted for Broadway, the book won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize and the musical based on the book ran for five years. And then, strangely, it disappeared from the American stage. Another generation became familiar with the music and the characters through a subsequent film, but the play itself was not revived for sixty one years! South Pacific was not forgotten in London, however. During this period it was staged here several times. And now South Pacific, with the same production team and male lead has transferred to London. And it is simply glorious!

There is a timeless, almost dreamlike quality to this musical. The world it evokes, particularly with reference to Bali Ha’i, exists as a sort of fantasy where dreams come true and the impossible becomes possible. The beautiful sets by Michael Yeargan and imaginative lighting by Donald Holder are minimal and dreamlike, with stunning use of slatted screens to carve out interior spaces through which we can glimpse the world beyond. Set against this timeless world of sun and sea is a very particular context – Americans from all sorts of backgrounds caught up in the terrible carnage that was World War II in the Pacific. Bonded together for a time their interactions are alternatively funny and touching.

The play’s treatment of the theme of racial tolerance and a lack thereof was quite prescient for 1949 (years before the racial turmoil and landmark legislation of the 1950’s and 60’s). There are two sets of lovers – Emile De Becque and Nellie Forbush, and Lieutenant Cable and the young daughter of Bloody Mary, Liat. It is the social context of their love which is problematic – not the love itself. And at least for Emile and Nellie, there is a happy ending.

Catherine Zuber’s detailed costumes are bright and just right. Bart Sher’s direction allows the musical numbers to flow in and out of the story. There is an organic feel to it all which serves the beautiful music and touching lyrics extremely well. It is fascinating to compare South Pacific with this team’s work last season at the Metropolitan Opera, a vibrant and witty production of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory. Sher et al have a presence in both opera and musical theater. And so does the star of South Pacific, the splendid baritone, Paulo Szot. As Emile in the New York production, Szot won a Tony award. In his Met debut, he was marvellous as Kovalev in William Kentridge’s magical production of Shostakovich’s The Nose. This season, Met audiences have the pleasure of seeing him as Lescaut in Manon. He will also be singing cabaret songs at New York’s elegant Café Carlyle.

Mr. Szot is an extraordinary musician. He has a beautifully colored, rich baritone voice which he employs with great finesse. He is a consummate actor -- as attentive to the words as he is to the music. And he is able to use colors, dynamics, phrasing and word painting to convey so much, especially the longing for love and the deep feeling of Emile. Although he integrated himself splendidly with the entire company, there was a difference when he was on stage; he was a presence. But he was not an opera star who wandered into a musical. He WAS Emile. When he sang “This Nearly Was Mine” with utter passion and commitment, he brought down the house (as it did when he sang it at Carnegie Hall in May. (Read here)

The rest of the cast acquitted themselves extremely well. Samantha Womack was a worthy partner for Mr. Szot. She sang with beauty and great feeling. Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary was a splendid comedian and a touchingly attentive mother. Alex Ferns as Luther Billis excelled as a master manipulator and also a warm hearted facilitator of love.

It was a magical night in the theatre and I felt privileged to be there.

The Café Carlyle

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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