An omnipresent hit of the early 1950s, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific hasn’t been seen in a so-called “major” New York theater production since the first version with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza closed in 1954. It has lived on in regional theaters, and even a film or two, like the unfortunate 1958 version starring Mitzi Gaynor, with its bad-acid-trip color experimentation, and a dowdy TV attempt with Glenn Close. It’s worth emphasizing the pressure director Bartlett Sher was under to create a worthy successor to the legendary Martin/Pinza Broadway original, which was preserved on record. It’s exciting to hear a 30-piece orchestra, complete with harp and cymbals, dive into the overture, and the score is always carefully, sometimes sensitively played throughout. But there’s a cautiousness at work in this Lincoln Center revival that will please mink-coat-wearing patrons of the arts who want to leave a show “humming the tunes,” but will not win the musical any new fans.
For South Pacific to really work on stage, there has to be a sensuality underneath everything we see, offsetting the material’s basically square point of view and once groundbreaking but now largely meaningless social conscience. After all, the characters are all stuck together on an extremely hot tropical island — but there’s no sense of heat or sweat here, and even though the sailors mime sexual frustration during their big ‘There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame’ number, their blocked libido is treated with bloodless, intelligent good taste. There’s no danger lurking in the setting and the songs, as there should be; everything is well thought out but basically uninspired, down to the clearly regimented blocking, which keeps the performers straight-jacketed into “the right choice” for each moment.
Kelli O’Hara is a natural for Nellie Forbush, Martin’s signature role, and she works hard at capturing the character’s provincial misgivings. Nellie should enchant us, at first, with her ordinariness, which is an admittedly tricky proposition for any actress. But try as she may, O’Hara can’t make this woman the enchanting heroine she’s meant to be, even when she does two expert cartwheels and keeps on singing during what might be the best song in the show, ‘A Wonderful Guy’. Some of this failure is technical; surely part of the fun of this song, which charmed even Igor Stravinsky, is getting through all the sung “I’m in love!” declarations in one superhuman breath, so that “...with a wonderful guy!” comes out just in the nick of time, before Nellie collapses from lack of air. But O’Hara takes a big breath in the middle of the “I’m in love!” exclamations, a safe choice emblematic of what’s wrong with this production as a whole.
Paulo Szot, a Brazilian opera singer, beautifully performs the Pinza songs. Maybe because he comes from such a different, more formal discipline, he responds well to the director’s intellectual approach. Szot is goose-pimplingly intense when he sings straight to O’Hara, and especially fine when he takes a part of ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ at a quiet pitch. However fine he is, though, Szot is much too young-looking and conventionally handsome for the role. His character, Emile de Becque, is older than Nellie in every way, and Szot’s even physical match with O’Hara upsets this balance. It is possible to enjoy the songs one at a time during the pile-up of musical goodies in Act One, but a touch of abandon might have made a serviceable production of this classic show into a memorable one.