Carnegie Hall, New York - June 9, 2005
Reviewed by John Kenrick
When you trust Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, it pays off. Of course, it also helps if you bother to learn material before performing it in public.
A packed audience at Carnegie Hall saw fresh evidence of these theatrical home truths at last week's benefit concert of South Pacific. Those members of the star-studded cast who did their homework and trusted the authors whipped up moments of genuine magic. The one or two who did not wound up looking very foolish indeed. If only one of those foolish people had not been in a leading role.
Don't let anyone tell you that South Pacific is dated -- that's pure baloney! The script's humor is still effective, and much as we would like to think that war and racism are issues of the past, they are still all too much a part of our world today. The only reason productions of this musical have stumbled in recent years is that too many directors think they need to "fix" something that is not broken. Walter Bobbie, who did so much to make City Center's Encores concert series an institution, had the good sense to keep this concert staging as straightforward as possible. The results make it wonderfully clear that when it comes to South Pacific, less is more. This should come as no real surprise, since the original 1949 production was simple as could be. Basic sets, minimal staging . . . heck, they didn't even bother hiring a choreographer. As a result, the show relied entirely on quality writing and the talents of Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza and company. The results garnered a Pulitzer Prize, ran for years and became the stuff of theatrical legend.
The dean of Broadway conductors, Paul Gemignani, led the Orchestra of St. Luke's in his usual flawless manner -- but I was shocked to find no program credit for Robert Russell Bennett, the master orchestrator who gave South Pacific its classic overture and lush overall sound. A sizeable chorus of a dozen women and thirty eight men provided lusty ensemble singing. The audience was particularly appreciative when the men stripped off their tuxedos, revealing more than a few tight tank tops as they donned white navy caps. Such cheap but delightful visual thrills aside, "Bloody Mary" and "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" never sounded so glorious.
Alec Baldwin was a total delight as scheming Seabee Luther Billis. While it was no surprise that he handled the role with comic flair, his deft singing was a happy surprise -- and yes, he slipped into a grass skirt and cocoanut shells to turn "Honey Bun" into a showstopper. When he parted the grass to reveal his boxer short legs marked "twirly" and "whirly," the results were pure comic pandemonium. Kudos also to Lillias White, who was a luminous Bloody Mary. "Bali Hai" is one of the most poetic and powerful songs in the R&H canon, and White made it a musical and dramatic highlight of the evening. Conrad John Shuck and Dylan Baker were excellent as the non-singing military brass, and al the smaller roles were handled capably.
Handsome Jason Danieley is everything one could wish for as Lt. Joseph Cable -- sexy, torn by inner conflict, and gifted with a voice that sent "Younger Than Springtime" soaring. As his character is supposed to be from Philadelphia, the black cowboy boots under his tuxedo might have seemed a bit out of place, but Danieley made it work. I wish I could say the same for his Liat, but unfortunately Renita Croney had no clue how to handle this small but crucial role. One can only wonder what this minor model with no acting credits was doing on a stage full of professional actors. Clumsy, skinny and devoid of glamour, she was a terrible casting choice.
But the biggest mistake of the evening was Reba McEntire's decision to show up unprepared. Her program bio proclaims that "she knows what is important: sharing her heart and touching other people's hearts." Well, if she really wants to touch a paying audience's heart, she should have the common courtesy to study a script and learn any songs she plans to sing. McEntire could have been brilliant in this role -- her down home accent was perfect for a nurse from Little Rock, and her sure sense of comic timing made the lines of dialogue she got right into real delights. But despite having the script in hand, McEntire kept flubbing lines and even lyrics. I know she may have been a bit nervous, but with the script in hand such gaffes were inexcusable. The audience greeted her entrance with prolonged cheers, and deserved far more than this lady deigned to give them. We love you Reba, but you have to come prepared for performances!
It was left to Brian Stokes Mitchell to provide real star power, and he delivered it by the truckload. From the very first scene, his Emil de Becque radiated effortless sex appeal and showcased the thrilling baritone that has made Mitchell Broadway's top musical leading man. His "Some Enchanted Evening" was a treat, but nothing could have prepared the audience for Mitchell's take on that underrated masterpiece of a ballad, "This Nearly Was Mine." With painstaking craftsmanship, Mitchell took the audience to that "other place," the place we get to go when an artist and superb material fuse to create true art. Insert all the great performance clichés you want -- "heart stopping," "could have heard a pin drop" -- the best of them can't fully convey the agonizing beauty that Mitchell achieved with this song.
Mitchell gave Rodgers & Hammerstein their full due, and reaped a rich reward for himself and his listeners. For just a few minutes, the vast expanse of Carnegie Hall became ever so intimate, and every member of the audience was swept into the emotions of a grand showtune. Such are the moments performers and theatre lovers live for.
Is South Pacific ripe for a Broadway revival? That's hard to say. After all, no production could afford such a stellar cast. But this simple yet handsome concert staging proved that Rodgers and Hammerstein's old chestnut still exudes a heady perfume when properly warmed. All you have to do is get out of the way, trust the material -- and, oh yeah, show up prepared.