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More Enchanted Evenings

South Pacific photo 16 crop When we were invited back by Center Theatre Group to take a second look at the touring production of South Pacific, director Bartlett Sher's widely admired revival of the vintage Rodgers and Hammerstein musical at the Ahmanson Theatre, it didn't take much prodding. This is among the most inspired revivals of a Broadway classic within memory--bringing renewed luster and fresh relevance to a milestone musical that had somehow become underappreciated and a bit misunderstood in recent decades. The chance to savor the production's myriad pleasures again was a happy prospect.

The occasion for the revisit invitation was the return of renowned opera singer David Pittsinger (pictured here with Carmen Cusack as Nellie Forbush) to the male lead role of French plantation owner Emile de Becque. Pittsinger is among those who have played the role during the revival's run at Lincoln Center in New York (running 2008-present), where it earned seven Tony awards. Opera singer Rod Gilfrey played de Becque during the first few weeks of the Ahmanson run, and Pittsinger has now taken over for the duration, through July 17. 

Though the ages of these two actors is uncertain, the golden-locked and matinee-idol handsome Gilfrey projects a more youthful aura than one generally encounters in this role, while  the ruggedly appealing Pittsinger--whose energy and forcefulness are on a par with Gilfrey's--emphasizes the strength of will that's the result of a troubled past. Both actor-singers fully earn the empathy that's crucial to this role, and each captures a continental suave that's counterbalanced with a down-to-earth sense of mature wisdom and great compassion.

Each shares a terrific chemistry with the prodigiously talented Cusack, who plays the lovestruck Naval nurse facing a crisis of conscience that initally spells doom for the budding romance. Sher's fresh look at the material has been justifiably lauded for making the show's sensitive themes of racial prejudice (which in recent years were considered by some to be out-of-date as presented in Hammerstein's libretto) come across as timeless and utterly compelling. 

Yet riveting romantic drama is also a major component of this revival's Phoenix-like rebirth, underlining the significance of what Rodgers and Hammerstein did for the musical theater art form in seamlessly melding comedy, drama, and musical elements into a magical whole. Sher's effectiveness in bolstering the book is in no small part due to the richly nuanced characterizations that his production continues to be blessed with. Besides their fine characterizations, Pittsinger and Gilfrey are equally strong in singing the  glorious R&H ballads, both performers boasting powerful and resplendent voices. They are at the peak of their craft. Experiencing one or the other singing this score would seem sufficient reason in itself for catching this production.

SoCal Stages_blog As much as I loved the show when I first saw it at the June 2 opening (see review), it seemed even crisper and more dramatically enthralling during this return visit, and the musical staging by Christopher Gattelli, backed by an exemplary performing ensemble, Ted Sperling's soaring music direction, and Lawrence Goldberg's conducting, remains nothing short of blissful. There isn't much time left. Don't be one of the unlucky souls who later on will regretfully say they missed a landmark revival of a Broadway treasure--101 pounds of fun, and then some.

--Les Spindle

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