I walked into the Guthrie’s new production of South Pacific perhaps a little sadistically eager to measure it against the national tour of the 2008 Broadway revival. That tour’s performance at the Ordway was one of my favorite theatrical experiences of all time.
South Pacific is a musical set during World War II, about two sets of lovers and their island of cohorts surrounded by exotic beaches, lagoons, and vistas. It has both broad comedy and a blunt theme of racism, wrapped in a stream of classic songs. Not to be outdone by James Michener’s Pulitzer-winning book Tales from the South Pacific, on which the musical is based, it won its own Pulitzer for drama the year of its debut. It’s like a dare from Rogers and Hammerstein to theater companies.
Director Joseph Haj meets the challenges of such a sprawling, sweeping classic with grace and creativity. I do have a couple of criticisms, and one is fairly fundamental, but by and large it’s fantastic.
First off, in typical Guthrie style, the set (by John Lee Beatty) is brilliant. The edges of the thrust part of the Wurtele stage are carved and layered like a topographical map of an island and the backdrop looks a little like military camouflage netting perched on a grove of leafless palm trees. The netting screens the lighting and provides a vivid stand-in for sunsets, seascapes, beaches, tropical forests, the inside of a command tent, and nighttime skies. It’s a simple idea that creates a gorgeous effect.
In most theatrical performances, especially musical ones, there are voices that rise to the top and others that fade away (or that you wish would fade away). This cast is not that — their consistency is impressive. My favorite was the one I normally don’t care for: Emile, the middle-aged French plantation owner, a deep, operatic baritone. The Guthrie scored big, bringing in Edward Staudenmayer, whose voice is so pure throughout that it inspires comparisons to bells and other clear things. His Emile is still stoic, but with a pronounced sense of humor that makes his connection with Nellie more obvious than in other productions I’ve seen. Also succeeding in making me like a character more than I ever have: CJ Eldred as Lt. Joseph Cable. (Theater nerds will recognize him as Elder Price from the Book of Mormon national tour.)
Especially impressive about Eldred’s performance is his venomous delivery of “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” The production in general leans into the overt racism of the book, highlighting its enduring relevance. When the play hit Broadway for the first time in 1949 the song was a shocking slap in the face to audiences with little exposure to a public discussion of race. It still packs a punch today, to the extent that Lin-Manuel Miranda sneaks it into the song “My Shot” from the recent Tony winner Hamilton. Aaron Burr tells young revolutionaries in a tavern that “I’m with you, but the situation is fraught/ You’ve got to be carefully taught/ if you talk, you’re gonna get shot!”
Darker takes on other scenes include Billis (Jimmy Kieffer) being yelled at by a commanding officer for his interference in a mission and the disappointment Bloody Mary (Christine Toy Johnson) feels in Cable. Billis in general is a much more nuanced character here, as a connecting point between the two love stories, than usual — even though Kieffer also manages to nail the broad comedy that the role is famous for.
Only two things really disappointed me: this production cuts out one of my favorite songs and the orchestral accompaniment doesn’t live up to the vocal performances. “My Girl Back Home” is a short, wistful duet between Cable and Nellie Forbush (Erin Mackey) that was cut from the original production and has been added, or not, to subsequent stagings. It’s less than two minutes long, and doesn’t add any critical information, so cutting it for the sake of keeping the pace up is not an uncommon choice — but it is worth seeking out if you’ve never seen it.
Second, the Wurtele Thrust Stage is not a place I’d like to try and cram an orchestra onto. Tim Weil’s ten-person ensemble does a serviceable job, and it’s true that a nice synthesizer can mimic the sound of violins. Still, with a single bass as the only string represented on stage, the music sounds more like a brassy, big-band interpretation of the score. It blares over the nuance and lightness of the romantic ballads, many of which are famous highlights. Especially set against the rock-steady, gorgeous voices of the cast, the arrangement just falls a little short of filling out the spacious sound that the musical demands.
The Guthrie’s South Pacific is almost exactly what one would expect from the Twin Cities’ theatrical giant, along with the added fun of seeing their new artistic director at work with a relatively large number of first-time Guthrie players. It’s a robust, visually stunning production that’s not satisfied to just offer a chunk of the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook. It’s not possible to leave without understanding why the musical has endured and why it’s relevant now. It plays through August 28, and guarantees you a truly enchanted evening.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy Guthrie Theater