Thursday, February 3, 2011

South Pacific, PlayhouseSquare

There are some singing voices you hear and others you listen to intently. But it’s rare in a Broadway musical to encounter a voice you can almost literally bathe in, a voice so deep and warm that you feel you have to check your fingertips for wrinkling after emerging from its embrace.

Such is the voice of David Pittsinger, who plays Emile de Becque in PlayhouseSquare’s sensational revival of South Pacific. From the first syllable of “Some Enchanted Evening,” Pittsinger weaves emotional clarity throughout Rogers and Hammerstein’s classic love song. And he nearly tops himself in “This Nearly Was Mine” later in the second act.

In between, the show directed by Bartlett Sher manages to bring a new sense of energy and discovery to this reliable old war horse. Set in the South Seas on a Naval base, the book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan (based on a James A. Michener novel) deals in two ways with the issue of racial prejudice. The thrust of that story, although still relevant in these times, has lost some of its controversial punch.

But you will rarely hear this iconic score performed any better than this. Backed by a 25-piece orchestra, all the songs feel rich and luscious to the ear. And in the role of Nellie Forbush, Emile’s heartthrob, Carmen Cusack is refreshingly realistic.

Eschewing the paranormal perkiness that Mary Martin exhibited in the original, Cusack feels more like a genuine product of Little Rock, Arkansas—in both good and bad ways--which is as it should be. Cusack holds her own with Pittsinger in their duets and has plenty of fun with her featured songs “A Cockeyed Optimist” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.”

In supporting roles, Anderson Davis mixes macho and arrogance nicely as Lt. Cable, the Philadelphia mainliner who falls for a native girl, Liat ((Sumie Maeda), the daughter of the redoubtable Bloody Mary. Their doomed romance echoes the difficulties Nellie has with the two little children Emile had with his former wife, a Polynesian woman.

While music is the undeniable star of this touring show, the comic moments don’t work quite as well. As the resident conniver Luther Billis, Timothy Gulan works hard but never seems to catch the vibe of a military huckster on the prowl (Sgt. Bilko he ain’t). And Jodi Kimura’s Bloody Mary feels more of a cipher than a tropical earth mother with a deep vein of corruption. And the staging of “There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame” comes off more like calisthenics than a sweaty ode to sexual deprivation.

But those are small quibbles given this production’s lush, postcard sets by Michael Yeargan, and the songs that will melt even the coldest, deep-frozen Cleveland heart.

South Pacific

Through February 13 at the Palace Theatre, Playhouse Square, 1516 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

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