“Bali Ha’i may call you,
In your heart
You’ll hear it call you:
— excerpt from the song, Bali Ha’i, South Pacific
What better way to celebrate the New Year, than to go see the uplifting musical performance, South Pacific, now playing at The Kennedy Center through January 16, 2011? Described by The Washington Post as, “the best revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein in a generation” the performance certainly lives up to its billing and original namesake.
Directed by Bartlett Sher, the production stars David Pittsinger as Emile de Becque, Carmen Cusack as Nellie Forbush, with Anderson Davis as Lieutenant Cable, Timothy Gulan as the humorous Luther Bullis, and Jodi Kimura as Bloody Mary. South Pacific is based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by James A. Michener titled, “Tales of the South Pacific,” and set in the 1940’s during a lull in the war with Japan. It first appeared on Broadway in April of 1947, starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.
The performance at the Kennedy Center captures all the romance and magic of living on an island in the South Pacific during World War II, just as the original Broadway play did. It is complete with a beautiful set design that opens with Ensign, Nellie Forbush visiting with Emile de Becque, the handsome French planter, at his island plantation home pictured against the backdrop of a Pacific Ocean complete with sand, waves, palm trees and varying hues of pinks and purples, as the sun is setting behind them. The scene is punctuated by the songs, Dites Moi sung by Emil’s two children, and followed by Nellie singing Cock-eyed Optimist, which eventually flows into the beautiful, Some Enchanted Evening sung by Emil as she visits with him at his home. Special features of the set include retractable plantation shutters which frame the scenes (and Emil’s home), and are controlled from above the stage, where they are moved up and down, or flutter in time to the music, along with the soft variations in lighting.
The main action of the play takes place on two islands, and the colorful characters include not just Nellie and Emil, but a host of U.S. navy sailors and “seabees,” nurses, as well as the native islanders who make up the story. The plot centers upon two romantic affairs, the most significant being the love affair between Nellie and Emil, her middle-aged, handsome Frenchman. A secondary, parallel romance occurs between Lieutenant Joseph Cable who comes to the island for duty, and a beautiful young Tonkinese girl named Liat, whose mother happens to be Bloody Mary— perhaps the most colorful character of the play— and a native of the neighboring island of Bali Ha’i. Bloody Mary keeps all of the navy officers in line, and also tries to interest them in her daughter, encouraging them to be faithful to her as well, but Liat falls for Lieutenant Cable, and he for her. Bloody Mary also carries with her a shrunken human head, which she repeatedly offers to the Americans, bringing comic relief to the situation that the navy sailors find themselves in, living on this remote and isolated island.
On another level, the play brings to light the power of romance against the prejudices that existed in the 1940’s, most notably in Nellie’s reaction to Emil’s revelation that he was previously married to a Polynesian woman, and that his two children were a product of this mixed-marriage. Nellie becomes torn between her love for him, and the implications of dealing with his mixed-race children (although his Polynesian wife is deceased). The story reaches a dramatic pinnacle when the navy interferes in Nellie’s relationship with Emil, and asks her to become a spy so that they can learn more about the Japanese, with whom Emil apprently has some connections. She complies, and Lt. Cable is also brought into the mix when he is asked by the Navy to go on a secret mission to another island to investigate. Eventually, Emil also enters the picture when he is asked and finally agrees to assist both Lt. Cable and the Navy, accompanying him on this secret mission to the other island to find out what they can about the Japanese attackers.
As the story progresses, Nellie’s prejudices are swept away, being overtaken by her concern for both the safety of Emil and Lt. Cable. There is a scene where Nellie is with the other naval officers at the Navy base, while they are in radio contact with Emil and Lt. Cable. The scene is enhanced by a large map in the background projected above the stage, showing the entire region of the South Pacific and Solomon islands, where the story and the war take place. When they suddenly lose radio contact with Emil and Lt. Cable, Nellie realizes at this point the danger they are in. The intervening scenes, both before and while Emil is away on this mission, are delightful and humorous ones, however in which Nellie declares that she is “Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” (meaning Emil) with the other nurses on the beach, while shampooing in a makeshift shower — only to be confronted and embarrassed by Emil himself at the end of the song while she wears a towel on her head. And again later, while Emil and Lt. Cable are away on the mission, the sailors and the nurses put on an entertaining performance for everyone, using a makeshift stage at the beach, (with a curtain that is charmingly illustrated with images of people in 1940’s style beach dress), only to discover that their gas lighting which serves as electricity for the stage has failed, so they cannot complete the performance. Finally though, back at the Navy base, news of Lt. Cable and Emil arrives, and while the real play has a bittersweet ending involving Lt. Cable and Liat, it resolves with Emil finally returning from the secret and dangerous island mission, to be reunited with Nellie at his home.
David Pittsinger and Carmen Cusack are both excellent actors and singers, and enhance the Kennedy Center performance with their beautiful solos from the original Rodgers and Hammerstein music, all set against a most beautiful and creative backdrop, which will ultimately transport you, the viewer, away to that “Special island…where the sky meets the sea.”
To purchase tickets to this wonderful performance, visit this link on the Kennedy Center website where you can choose from remaining performance dates and times, through January 16, 2011.