South Pacific -- Theater Review

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In America, the age of "cockeyed optimism" might be long gone, but onstage it lives again in the person of Ensign Nellie Forbush and the buoyant drama and matchless music of "South Pacific." Because optimism of any sort is in short supply these days, we probably should be grateful for any reminder we get of what a pleasant sensation it is.

As it happens, the Lincoln Center production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic docking at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre is so exhilarating, why settle for optimism when you can have a little piece of heaven in the bargain? To be blunt, this is about as good as it gets.

It's hard to say which part of director Bartlett Sher's production -- which took home seven Tonys in 2008 -- is more captivating: the music and singing or the story and acting. Ordinarily the question wouldn't even arise, but the actors are so well-cast in this national touring production and the drama so compelling on its own merits that those who only know the music will be pleasantly surprised by what a ripping good story is being told.

Start with the leads, Carmen Cusack and Rod Gilfry as the aforementioned Nellie and Emile, the older, French plantation owner with whom Nellie falls in love. Cusack is everything you could want as the self-described hick from Little Rock who happens to have a streak of small-town racism buried in her otherwise generous nature. It's a grounded, graceful performance capped by a singing style equally grounded in the sentiment of each song. Nellie's "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" is a knockout, and her oversized white sailor-suited "Honey Bun" is a special delight.

Gilfry, his handsome baritone matched by his good looks and impeccable French accent, also displays first-rate acting chops. The love scenes between Emile and Nellie are truthful and nuanced in ways not always evident in musicals. A superb "Some Enchanted Evening" only adds to the magic. (David Pittsinger will be playing Emile de Becque starting June 22.)

In the parallel love story, Anderson Davis as Lt. Joseph Cable, the Marine who falls in love with a Tonkinese native girl, also finds the emotional heart of his role. His "Younger Than Springtime" does full justice to the song's tender lyricism. Taking a back seat to no one is Keala Settle's brilliant Bloody Mary, who steals every scene she's in with her powerful presence. Her "Bali Ha'i" and "Happy Talk" are highlights.

Where would this show be without the conniving, girl-crazy, goofball sailor Luther Billis to remind us how the other half lives in the Armed Services? Matthew Saldivar knows where the laughs are, and the supporting ensemble of sailors and Seabees also are terrific, especially in the rousing "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame."

So, which is better -- the songs or the storytelling? Let's call it a tie. A perfect tie.

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles (Through July 17)
Cast: Rod Gilfry, Carmen Cusack, Anderson Davis, Matthew Saldivar, Keala Settle, Gerry Becker, Peter Rini, Sumie Maeda, Cj Palma, Christina Carrera, Mike Evariste. (David Pittsinger will be playing Emile de Becque starting June 22. )
Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Book: Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Adapted from: "Tales of the South Pacific" by James A. Michener
Director: Bartlett Sher
Music director: Ted Sperling
Music conductor: Lawrence Goldberg
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