THEATER | A classy “South Pacific” at the Ordway


The dashboard of my aging luxury sedan demands that the car be supplied with high-octane fuel exclusively, and I dutifully obey. I don’t entirely understand what, if any, difference it makes, but I imagine it being something like the difference between giving a talented singer an Andrew Lloyd Webber song and giving him a Rogers and Hammerstein song: there’s performance, and then there’s performance.

(This is not the first time an automotive metaphor has occurred to me when reviewing a musical, and I think it’s because like a car, a musical wants to take you on a ride. When things go well, you enjoy the entire journey—with all its ups and downs. When they don’t, you feel bored and queasy, and just want the ride to be over.)

Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is now playing at the Ordway, in a touring production mounted by Lincoln Center Theater. The fact that the company uses the American spelling of “theater” is an apt indicator of this production’s efficiency and confidence. As with the production of Little House on the Prairie seen at the Ordway last year, the single word that best describes this show is classy. From the performers to the sets, everything about the production is beautiful and understated. Director Bartlett Sher puts the book and music front and center, a decision that is the production’s strength—but which is also its weakness, insofar as it results in a show that feels rather safe.

south pacific, playing through may 16 at the ordway center for the performing arts. for tickets ($63.50-$80.50) and information, see

For those few of you who haven’t seen it (until Tuesday night, I was among your number), the 1949 musical is based on the James Michener novel about life in the Pacific theater of World War II. The musical, the book for which was written by Hammerstein with Joshua Logan, combines various stories from the novel into a narrative centering on two romances: Ensign Nellie Forbush (Carmen Cusack) falls for mysterious Frenchman Emile de Becque (Rod Gilfry), while Lt. Joseph Cable (Anderson Davis) has a star-crossed affair with a Tonkinese girl named Liat (Sumie Maeda). Eventually, all are caught up in a covert surveillance action with the potential to turn the war’s tide.

The most distinctive aspects of Michael Yeargan’s fine set design are a gorgeous (there is no other word) backdrop depicting the mysterious island of Bali Ha’i; low dunes for the characters to ascend; and stage-wide rows of horizontal blinds that are put to use alone and in combination with other set elements. Those elements—French doors for de Becque’s house, a stage for the Thanksgiving Day show-within-a-show—come and go, but the backdrop, the dunes, and the blinds are all visible nearly thoughout the show, and the effect is indeed transporting. It feels luxuriously indulgent to settle in as Rogers’s glistening overture plays; you can almost smell the sea.

Beyond dispute, South Pacific is one of the greatest greats of the golden age of Broadway musicals. Its distinctive character comes from its exotic setting (Rogers bends the score into eerie, dissonant harmonies to set the mood) and an unusual twist on conventional melodrama: rather than the reactionary love-thwarting voices coming from outside the lead characters, they are internalized within those characters’ heads. The people around the American leads are untroubled by their boundary-breaking romances—to follow their bliss, Nellie and Cable need only overcome their personal reservations.

The ensemble of performers are supremely confident, and they have every reason to be: they’ve got the chops, and they’ve got the material. Do they need anything else? Well, that’s the question. Though there’s nothing wrong with any of the performances, the three leads—Cusack, Gilfry, and Davis—all convey an oddly flat quality. You could set your watch by the precision of Cusack’s jitterbugging, and Davis looks almost hewn from stone (I’m not convinced his perfectly muscled torso wasn’t somehow computer-generated), but they’re not very recognizably human. Gilfry is somewhat more successful in that respect, eventually breaking through his first-act starchiness and summoning a pained indignation. Supporting characters Billis (Matthew Saldivar) and Bloody Mary (Keala Settle) are written with plenty of color—arguably too much color, in the case of the caricatured Tonkinese Bloody Mary—and both Saldivar and Settle consistently display more life than any of the romantic leads.

If the performers don’t add much in the way of interpretation, they do serve as fine earthly vessels to carry South Pacific‘s sublime music. When Gilfry leans into “Some Enchanted Evening” or Cusack pops out of the shower to “Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” the classic songs bloom into such powerful life that you feel like the earth might crack beneath you. With material like this, it’s okay if the performers don’t contribute a lot of personality: all they really have to do is open their mouths and get the hell out of the way.