'South Pacific' still a day at the beach


It's amazing when you think about it that the two best "new" musicals on the Broadway boards this season have been part of our American theater culture since before Leonardo DiCaprio, Uma Thurman and Brad Pitt were even born.

"Gypsy," now wowing them at the St. James with Patti LuPone, made its initial Broadway debut in 1959, the same year Simon Cowell, Hugh Laurie and Renee Fleming first wailed in a bassinet. The original production of "South Pacific," now in its first Broadway revival at the Vivian Beaumont in Lincoln Center, opened exactly 10 years earlier in 1949 but is so beautifully done in its current incarnation that it could have been created in January -- if, that is, songwriters of today were penning songs as melodic as Rodgers and Hammerstein did in their time with determined regularity.

But it's not only their music and lyrics that elevate this particular interpretation of the 1949 triumph to an equally triumphant level now. The direction by Bartlett Sher, along with the musical staging by Christopher Gattelli, takes full advantage of the elephantine-sized Beaumont stage, which with this production looks roughly the size of Montana thanks to spectacular stage designs by Michael Yeargan.

Bottom line: While Rodgers and Hammerstein, with orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, bewitch the ears, the eyes are simultaneously being dazzled in the way one always hopes a Broadway musical might. Another plus: The book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan has substance, another element also missing from most of today's singing-dancing shows. (Think about it: The "South Pacific" plot involves war, a potentially suicidal military raid, a hero who once killed a man, a mother who pushes a daughter into a sexual liaison with a stranger, a sunny heroine who's a racist, the death of a leading character, various varieties of rascals, con artists and one G.I. happily cavorting in drag. Plus, first and foremost, two romantic stories, one ill-fated, the other nearly so -- not many musicals can claim as stacked a story line.)

But no matter how juicy the elements, it wouldn't work without a superior cast, and this production certainly has that. Kelli O'Hara, who caught everyone's eye in the recent revival of "The Pajama Game" with Harry Connick Jr., gives an amazingly detailed and captivating performance as the perky nurse from Little Rock who's the main focus of the show; she also sings like a dream. (Too bad she has to compete with LuPone in the next Tony race.) The opera world's Paulo Szot (pronounced "Shot") sings magnificently as the object of Nurse Nellie's affections; he might be Broadway's most impressive new leading man since Hugh Jackman in his "Boy From Oz" days.

Special high marks also go to Loretta Ables Sayre, giving the best interpretation of Bloody Mary I've seen -- and I've had many "South Pacific" sightings at this point. But everyone in this cast deserves accolades and, good news for them, none will likely be hunting for a new job for months to come.

A little Hart in all of them

Last week at Feinstein's at the Regency, Michael Feinstein, along with Kitty Carlisle Hart's longtime performing partner David Lewis and a large contingent of Kitty's friends, paid tribute to the late, much-admired lady in the same cabaret room where she most enjoyed playing in New York. With all proceeds going to Hart's favorite charity, the Dramatists Guild, the packed house included ex-Gov. Mario Cuomo and wife Matilda; Arlene Dahl and husband Marc Rosen; and Hart offsprings Cindy and Christopher. They all watched singing turns by Jane Powell, Christine Andreas, Mary Cleere Haran, KT Sullivan, Anna Bergman, Dina Merrill and George S. Irving.

Irving was on last, and good thing no one had to follow him. He had appeared on Broadway with Hart in "On Your Toes" and at the tribute sang a hilarious song by Stan Daniels he'd introduced in a flop 1976 show "So Long 174th Street." Titled "The Butler's Song," it's about a butler in a dream who supposedly takes a call from Greta Garbo and tells her why his master can't be disturbed at present or the near future. The lyrics begin "He's screwing Dolores Del Rio," and the song ultimately includes the names of every well-known movie actress of the 1930s.

Because of the ribald lyrics and Irving's performance, it brought down the house. K.C.H., always a blithe spirit, would have loved it.