Monday, November 8, 2010

Pittsburgh Roger's and Hammerstein's South Pacific, Historically and Artisticly--Smash Success

Presented at the Benedum Theatre, Pittsburgh, Pa.
November 2-6, 2010

I’d like to know where they got that audio of a twin-row Pratt & Whitney Wasp bolted to what must have been an F6 Hellcat or TBF Avenger thundering unseen across the stage about twenty feet up in the rafters. The first time I ducked; the second time I grinned. A big grin.

And who built that incredibly accurate stage prop of a Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber? The story takes place during the 1942 US invasion of Guadalcanal Island. We were losing the war. Marines were clinging to the island’s airfield and the Navy was getting the pounding of its life by Japanese warships sneaking in at night. Coastwatchers like le Becque were critical in spotting these enemy ships and alerting our forces. The TBD, once the most modern torpedo bomber in the world, had by this stage in the War slid down to an obsolescent old deathtrap, too weak to fight and too slow to run away. But it was all we had, so our pilots went up again and again and once in a while some even came back.

The partial model on stage is absolutely authentic and compellingly accurate right down to its rivets, its folding wing, the small panes of its canopy used because in 1935 when the aircraft was first built we didn’t have the technology to mold large, clear bubbles, and its correct wing star markings for that period of the war. Somebody besides this writer knows their World War II Navy aircraft and no mistake about that.

And this is as it should be. Lt. James Michener , USN, author of Tales of the South Pacific from which the musical emerged, was a meticulous researcher. As a naval historian, he was sent to the South Pacific to make the Navy’s record of events. Michener usually got around pretty well because his last name, pronounced with two syllables, was often mistaken for the son of Navy Admiral Marc Mitscher. Well, whatever works, works. The accuracy and detail in these sets and sound effects do great honor to the name of a major American writer and father of the play itself.

Like every Harley Davidson motorcycle built in the last generation, the musical production South Pacific has become a pleasing hostage to its own idiom, a household fixture in American culture. You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, and you don’t mess with the original 1949 casting. Nobody would cast Knucklehead Nelly as a buxom brunette, or Emil de Becque as a twentysomething tenor. Nelly has got to be Mary Martin, Emile must be Ezio Pinza or pretty damned close.

Close enough, at least, so when we walk out of this Bartlett Sher performance, our footsteps wafting several inches above the pavement from the power and beauty to which we have just been treated, Pittsinger’s de Becque and Pinza’s can mesh in our souls to nine decimals. And they do.

Cusack’s Nelly, which is to say Cusack’s Mary Martin, is a flawless powerful amalgam of tough Navy officer and ineffably sweet little Arkansas runaway. Hard to miss in her performance is the quintessential American woman balancing her femininity between soul searching prejudice and glorious loving fulfillment. As, over time, must we all.

In fact, the plot was originally designed to turn on prejudice, moved along by Nelly’s aversion to de Becque’s black children from a previous relationship, and Cable’s reluctance to expose Liat to the prejudice he knew she will encounter in upscale Philadelphia. And therein lies my single criticism.

What was timely and even advanced thinking six decades ago simply doesn’t play today. Nobody cares whether kids are black or white or red with little green spots. They’re just kids and we love them. Actually, a more believable motivation for modern audiences would be Nelly rejecting de Becque not because of his black kids but because he’s French. Works for me.

Moreover, in today’s world, the transplanting of a lovely south seas beauty from the lush tropics to dank, noisome Philadelphia might cause some tongues to drag on the ground but not to wag with gossip. Yes, Virginia, you can bring home just about anybody you want nowadays and if they have a Green Card and no parole officer they’re likely to be welcomed.

I point this out, not to carp, but to praise. Hammerstein and Josh Logan’s book and Rogers tunes are so powerful and flow together so seamlessly that they completely overshadow what today might otherwise be a serious flaw in the story line. The musical is simply so good that who cares about a bunch of plot stuff anyway? Just listen to Cusack and the girls belting out Honey Bun, my personal favorite, or Pittsinger taking the audience’s chin in his hands and gazing into our eyes with his This Nearly Was Mine…and then tell me what you don’t like about the plot.

In other words, the reviewer loved this thing to pieces, at Pittsinger’s Some Enchanted Evening wept along with the rest, and would have hidden himself away in the theatre to sneak into the next night’s performance if he’d had the foresight to bring a couple of sandwiches to sustain him through the night.

Bravo, you guys; you did good.

reviewed by

Dr. Robert Beeman
author of No More Time for Sorrow

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Publisher: Joanne Quinn-Smith 412-628-5048

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