An enchanting South Pacific at PPAC

Love and war
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  December 8, 2010

Theater_david_pittsinger_ma
PARTNERING IN PARADISE Pittsinger and Cusack in South Pacific.
History is written by the winners, and there are few good-guy winners in the history of warfare more hallowed and haloed than the American victors of World War II, saviors of Western civilization.

The righteous glow of virtue (and macho swagger) was still in full illumination in 1949 when the musical South Pacific hit Broadway, with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan. Directed by Bartlett Sher, the touring production has settled into the Providence Performing Arts Center (through December 12) for a full-throated, celebratory visit.

Winner of the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for drama, this gold-standard for boffo Broadway entertainment was drawn from another Pulitzer winner, James A. Michener's 1947 Tales of the South Pacific, weaving three of its stories into one. The war in the Pacific is kept safely in the background, for the most part. On this naval base in the Solomon Islands, we get to know some fun-loving members of the Navy construction core known as the Seabees, and a few officers and nurses.

One of the latter, Ensign Nellie Forbush (Carmen Cusack) from Little Rock — a hick from the sticks, as she admits — is getting interested in a sophisticated French planter, Emile de Becque (David Pittsinger). She is seriously thinking of leaving her American life behind and living here in this South Sea paradise. Trouble is, she doesn't know yet that he has two brown-skinned children, a fact he's loath to disclose. The other love story is also reluctant. Marine Lieut. Joseph Cable (Anderson Davis) falls for an innocent young native girl, Liat (Sumie Maeda). She is the daughter of a Tonkinese woman the sailors call Bloody Mary (Jodi Kimura), a colorful local character who sells grass skirts and boars' tusk bracelets and such. As poignant love stories go, the two men eventually have to go on a secret mission from which they have little chance of returning: sneaking onto a Japanese-held island and radioing back ship locations.

The hands-down star of this production is Pittsinger, and not just because the other male lead, younger and movie-star-handsome, is so light on the charisma. Pittsinger's credits are all in operas, none for musicals, and he's a good actor, so his emotionally resonant baritone is a wonder to behold. His booming "Some Enchanted Evening" had the audience clapping their hands off, delaying proceedings slightly. Pittsinger soars in the role opera star Ezio Pinza created in 1949.

The other performances are fine. Cusack's Nellie maintains dignity through her self-conscious unsophistication. But two characters here cut loose. As Bloody Mary, Kimura remains good fun through the little woman's broken-English bargaining. The main opportunity for comedy is given to sailor Luther Billis, and Timothy Gulan has the hustling character run himself ragged with schemes, such as contracting out for fake shrunken heads.

This musical's creators significantly advanced the cause of integration by including the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," the year after President Harry Truman desegregated a reluctant Armed Forces. The moral centerpiece of this story is racial bigotry. Nellie is stunned that De Becqu has two Eurasian children from his late Polynesian wife, and leaves him at first because of this, before returning. By including "Carefully Taught" for Cable to sing to de Becque in explanation, the authors risked the show's financial success.

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