Broadway’s revival of South Pacific has opened to a set of excellent reviews. Here’s a roundup of what the critics are saying about the show:
Ben Brantley at The New York Times: For this South Pacific recreates the unabashed, unquestioning romance that American theatergoers had with the American book musical in the mid-20th century, before the genre got all self-conscious about itself. There’s not an ounce of we-know-better-now irony in Mr. Sher’s staging. Yet the show feels too vital to be a museum piece, too sensually fluid to be square. I could feel the people around me leaning in toward the stage, as if it were a source of warmth on a raw, damp day. And that warmth isn’t the synthetic fire of can-do cheer and wholesomeness…. It’s the fire of daily life, with all its crosscurrents and ambiguities, underscored and clarified by music.
David Rooney at Variety:This is undeniably a period piece but it’s approached here with a serious-minded contemporary sensibility that keeps it relevant. Mixed-race relationships may now be accepted, but as anyone following the presidential contest knows, race itself remains an issue. And questions about the morality of war, the loss of lives and the way America engages with the world inevitably continue to resonate today, perhaps even more than when the show was first seen in the aftermath of WWII…. Possibly the most accomplished young actress in American musical theater today, Kelli O’Hara’s creamy vocals are perfection…. Closer in age to Nellie than past actors in the role, handsome Brazilian operatic baritone Szot is new to musicals and a real find.
Cilve Barnes at The New York Post:Sher has been helped here by Christopher Gatelli’s boisterous but unobtrusive choreography, Michael Yeargan’s beautiful settings (at the start, the thrust stage rolls back to expose the full and eloquent orchestra) and Catherine Zuber’s carefully accurate costumes…. O’Hara delivers Nellie on her own terms and in her own deliquescent persona…. Szot… has a splendid voice, fine presence and acts superbly…. As for the rest, there’s not a single weakness – with Burstein offering a magnificent mix of sleaze and heart as Luther, and the excellent Morrison (whose profile resembles James Dean’s) leaves a poignant impression as the young airman, Cable.
Joe Dziemianowicz at The Daily News: O’Hara is just plain wonderful…. Szot… with a rich baritone ideal for de Becque…. Hawaiian actress Loretta Ables Sayre is the find of the season, completely convincing and hilarious. Danny Burstein brings rowdy good fun to scheming seaman Luther Billis, while Morrison, as always, delivers a strong performance…. Sher has reinstated “My Girl Back Home,” a duet cut from the Broadway original, which neatly ties Joe and Nellie’s stories. It’s a simple and magical number shrewdly staged near dozens of road signs – a neat comment on feeling adrift far, far from home. Such consummate care and eye for detail pervades this production, even the scene changes.
Michael Sommers at The New Jersey Star-Ledger: Some enchanted experience, South Pacific returns to Broadway in as perfect a production as anyone is ever likely to see…. Expect no offbeat concepts from director Bartlett Sher, who focuses intently on the drama in this saga of American military personnel stationed on a Pacific island during the bleakest days of World War II…. Designer Michael Yeargan melds misty tropical views, military equipment like flatbed trucks and a bomber, slatted screens and Donald Holder’s colorful lighting to create a series of handsome vistas.
John Simon at Bloomberg: Director Bartlett Sher’s challenge was reviving without exactly repeating the original staging, and he (with choreographer Christopher Gattelli) has made some fine contributions, while smartly retaining certain Logan masterstrokes. Sher restored material cut from the original script that deals compellingly with racism. He has excelled at getting mute, peripheral characters to scurry about or linger atmospherically to perfection (note two distant, sunbathing nurses), and in making first-rate use of an airplane and all sorts of military equipment…. Most important, Sher has retained the cinematic flow, naturalism and suggestive use of Trude Rittman’s brilliant underscoring.
Elysa Gardner at USA Today: Bartlett Sher and a gifted, great-looking cast fully engage both the challenges faced by these and other characters and the romantic sweep of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ravishing score. Led by Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot and the increasingly wondrous Kelli O’Hara, the company includes a superb Matthew Morrison as golden-boy lieutenant Joe Cable; a frisky Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary; and two of the most adorable child actors you’re likely to ever see, Luka Kain and Laurissa Romain as Emile’s little ones. I doubt there has ever been a nobler or sexier Emile than Szot’s.
Michael Kuchwara at Associated Press: Director Bartlett Sher has done a masterful job in balancing story and song. For one thing, his leads are youthful, sexy and can act. Kelli O’Hara… makes an endearing Ensign Nellie Forbush, the self-described “little hick” and “cock-eyed optimist” from Little Rock, Ark. O’Hara finds both parts of this exuberant, insecure woman…. Brazilian opera star Paulo Szot brings a debonair charm to the role of de Becque and manages to turn that old warhorse, “Some Enchanted Evening,” into something that is not only emotional but resonates believability within the context of the story – two people falling in love at first glance.
Eric Grode at New York Sun: It is the finest Rodgers and Hammerstein revival since Nicholas Hytner’s epochal Carousel of 1994 – which may be the finest musical revival to reach Broadway during that time – and it is a tonic for anyone seeking the glories of modern-day stagecraft employed in the service of musical-theater greatness. Mr. Sher is seemingly incapable of creating a stage picture that is imprecise or unattractive…. Paulo Szot and the wonderful Kelli O’Hara, each show an acute sensitivity to dynamics…. Morrison’s pop-inflected tenor mars Cable’s material, and his military bravado has an unwelcome touch of playacting.
John Lahr at The New Yorker: Under the elegant, astute direction of Bartlett Sher, Lincoln Center’s revival… is a majestic spectacle…. Kelli O’Hara puts a fine shine on the role of Nellie. She has a good voice; she’s charming; she cartwheels and cuts up on cue. But… O’Hara is too classy and too knowing to fit the idiosyncratic comic contours of the role. This doesn’t impede her or the musical from getting over, but it lowers the temperature of the flamboyant end result. As Émile, the Brazilian Paulo Szot is superb, with a resounding creamy bass voice and a warm masculine presence. He plays well opposite the lithe O’Hara.
David Finkle at Theatremania: While Bartlett Sher’s current revival of South Pacific… is not a perfect realization… it’s near enough that anyone caviling about its drawbacks for more than 10 seconds is just a spoil-sport…. For the high quality of the production’s many noteworthy facets, Sher can take a bow…. It’s also Sher who must shoulder responsibility for what many will consider a misconstrued interpretation of Nellie, who’s far more restrained in O’Hara’s performance than someone vociferously declaring herself “a cockeyed optimist” would likely be. Sher also might have helped Szot seem less awkward during the book scenes than he does.
Frank Scheck at The Hollywood Reporter: Directed by Bartlett Sher, this lavish production doesn’t always succeed on a purely dramatic level, with the story line involving the major characters never quite connecting the way it should. But it does do full justice to the glorious score, and that’s more than enough…. The main performers simply don’t bring the requisite charm to their roles; O’Hara and Morrison stress the seriousness of their characters’ predicaments at the expense of much of their humor, and Szot… sings gorgeously but delivers a hopelessly stiff performance…. Fortunately, at least two of the supporting players take up the slack, with Danny Burstein’s conniving Luther Billis being a constant source of delight and Loretta Ables Sayre investing Bloody Mary with a galvanizing combination of humor and steeliness.
Matthew Murray at Talkin’ Broadway: Something this transporting, this precise, and this beautiful can only be crafted by the most skilled of hands…. O’Hara is riveting in her dramatic scenes…. But she’s not the irrepressible spirit she describes in “A Cockeyed Optimist” or the defiant feminist of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”…. Morrison’s problem is the opposite. Though dynamite in his lighter scenes, he strains as his role’s weightiness increases, connecting with his vital songs on the superficial level of the less-experienced Cable, but not of the more complex, conflicted man he eventually becomes. Everyone else is spectacular.
Jeremy McCarter at New York Magazine: Kelli O’Hara’s pure voice, easy charm, and golden good looks are so rare a combination they’re almost scary…. Paulo Szot doesn’t offer much in the way of swooning charisma, playing stiffly…. Not detecting much chemistry between O’Hara and Szot is, I recognize, a minority view…. There’s a lot to admire in Bartlett Sher’s revival…. It all immerses you in the forties, even though little in Richard Rodgers’s lushly orchestral score admits its origins in the high swing era…. Alas, a pioneer spirit doesn’t make the show complex or challenging enough to keep up with the racial conversation we’re having today. If it’s relevant now, it’s largely through letting us see how far our cultural depictions of American race relations have come.
Adam Feldman at Time Out New York: Bartlett Sher’s revival of South Pacific is faultlessly decorous. The staging is always elegant; the cast… acts with restraint and sings beautifully…. But is South Pacific a masterpiece? The score is a treasure, certainly, but elements of this 1949 show’s depiction of military life now seem corny, as does the pedantic antiracism song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” And although the strings beneath their dialogue signify romance from the start, there is something creepy about the rushed central relationship between American nurse Nellie Forbush (the lovely O’Hara, totally capable as always but a touch on the chilly side) and the wealthy, older French plantation owner Emile de Becque.
Michael Feingold at Village Voice: South Pacific, directed by Bartlett Sher, plumps for the work’s seriousness, approaching it with quiet realism…. An additional pinch of that showbiz self-mockery wouldn’t have hurt Sher’s production, which at times seems too sedate. Kelli O’Hara’s winsome, beautifully sung Nellie surprisingly lacks vigor; Loretta Ables Sayre makes Bloody Mary more amiable than lewdly ferocious…. Against this, it’s the graver romantics who register most strongly: Li Jun Li makes a fetchingly delicate Liat, Matthew Morrison’s Lieutenant Cable supplies everything the role needs, including a hint of aristocratic hauteur, while handsome, stalwart-voiced Paulo Szot, an unusually young de Becque, will probably soon figure in a lot of romantic playgoers’ dreams.
In the light of this successful critical reaction, the producers have announced that the revival will now play an open-ended run. This is wonderful news – South Pacific is my favourite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and ultimately the one, in my opinion, that has the potential to outlast any of the others.
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