I’ve been so busy and tired that I still haven’t blogged anything about South Pacific in the Golden Gate Theater, even though we saw it a couple days after it opened and now it’s already a few days before it closes.
Actually, though, it’s hard to know what to say about it once I’ve said that it’s just about a perfect production. I’ve seen several productions of South Pacific, large and small, so I know how easy it can be to do it poorly. This is easily the best production of the show that I’ve seen.
It makes for an interesting comparison with Wicked, because where Wicked is full of splash and spectacle and larger-than-life performances and characters painted in very broad strokes, South Pacific is a much more low-key show, sets are beautiful but simple, characters and performances are more human-scaled and nuanced — Hammerstein called South Pacific a “musical play” and this production keeps it that way.
And where Wicked was often far more thrilling, South Pacific kept me emotionally involved all the way through.
Part of the production’s strength is that it gives full weight to the fact that Nellie Forbush and Joe Cable are, to be blunt about it, racists. I’ve seen productions (and the movie version) where the intention seemed to be to give this aspect as little emphasis as possible, but it’s the crux of the story. In this production they even restore the line (cut from the original production) in which Nellie refers to a Polynesian woman as “colored”. Yes, I know, it makes you squirm in your seat; that is exactly why the line is there. Nellie’s unconscious racism is the obstacle that she must face up to and overcome if she’s to pursue the life she wants; if this isn’t made clear, then there’s no journey of the soul that she has to take, no real reason why she couldn’t say yes to Emile in the first scene and save us all three hours and the price of the tickets, no story to be told here that is really worth the telling.
(I read an article recently that referred to the “colored” line as offensively “racist dialogue” that should have been left out. How else, though, are you going to show that a character is racist without giving her something racist to say? Or is the point that no story should ever be told about a racist who confronts and overcomes her prejudices? Well, screw that reasoning.)
Rod Gilfry makes the transition from opera to musical play well — he sings magnificently, of course, but he acts well, too. Carmen Cusack as Nellie and Anderson Davis as Joe Cable are very, very good. But maybe the high point for me was Keala Settle as Bloody Mary singing “Bali Ha’i”. She gets across more layers of meaning in that song than I think I’d ever realized were there. And you know from the way she sings that song that she’s already making her plans for Joe Cable.