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Sultry City Night Is Transformed Into an Enchanted Bali Ha'i

by Ben Brantley, The New York Times

It was one of those nights when cynicism didn't stand a chance. The battalions of artists defending the honor of Love with a capital L - an emotion to be accompanied by many violins in eternal crescendo - were just too overwhelming to be resisted Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, where a concert version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" was performed in a state of nearly unconditional rapture.

The hard-hearted could sense what they were up against with the opening strains of the overture, played by the Orchestra of St. Luke's under the superb direction of Paul Gemignani, and melodies you might have once dismissed as candied corn ("Bali Ha'i," "Some Enchanted Evening") took on a compelling, multilayered intricacy.

That was before the ideally assembled cast members, led by Reba McEntire and Brian Stokes Mitchell and staged by Walter Bobbie, stepped forward to sing with their hearts in their throats. We were all goners long before Mr. Mitchell brought the house to a roar in the second act with "This Nearly Was Mine." Those fortunate enough to attend this one-night-only benefit for Carnegie Hall had the privilege of experiencing the emotional force of "South Pacific," a show seemingly calcified by its status as a period classic, as the members of its opening night audience must have in 1949.

I grew up listening to my parents' recording of "South Pacific," the original cast album with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. And while its adhesive tunes were clearly going to inhabit my memory until I died, as I grew older "South Pacific" never felt as fresh to me as Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel" did.

With its postwar sentimentality and solemn liberal conscience, "South Pacific" seemed lodged forever in an age when Americans were proud to be, like the show's heroine, cockeyed optimists. The show has received only one full-scale theatrical revival in Manhattan, at the New York State Theater in 1967 (plus a version at the New York City Opera in 1987), and critics found it dated even then. And neither a recent television adaptation, starring Glenn Close, nor Trevor Nunn's documentary-style staging (real jeeps! newsreel footage!) for the National Theater in London managed to make "South Pacific" come to life in the present tense.

Hammerstein and Josh Logan's exposition-heavy book (neatly streamlined here by David Ives), a tale of parallel romances among different cultures adapted from James A. Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific," still presents problems for latter-day producers. But by putting the emphasis squarely on the music, the Carnegie Hall production located the show's real staying power in its operatic respect for love as a force that hurts, teases, destroys and ennobles.

As the central pair of lovers - the Navy Ensign Nellie Forbush and the French planter Émile de Becque brought together on a Pacific Island during World War II - Ms. McEntire, the country and western singing star, and Mr. Mitchell, the Broadway baritone, made fruitful use of the differences in their performance styles.

As she showed when she took over from Bernadette Peters in the Broadway revival of "Annie Get Your Gun," Ms. McEntire is a natural for musicals, with a big, gliding voice that blurs the lines between conversation and song. Mr. Mitchell, who plumbed the bass notes of his part like a miner extracting diamonds, has a more formal approach, as befitted his suave European character. But the tidal pull of the orchestra - which here underlined every kiss and quarrel - made their coming together as inevitable as it was improbable.

This was as it should be, since the music is as much about love's disturbing pain and conflict as its all-conquering harmony. As Lt. Joseph Cable, the young marine who falls in love with a Polynesian girl (Renita Croney), Jason Danieley plied his exquisite tenor to introduce grainy shades of darkness, a Romantic poet's sense of love as a disease, to what is usually a white-bread role.

The orchestra brought out the diverse textures of the score, both its stirring ambivalence and its playfulness, its purposeful mingling and overlapping of the show's familiar musical phrases. Has there ever been a book musical that makes such artful use of the reprise? Just listen to the permutations of passages from "Bali Ha'i," "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Younger than Springtime" throughout. For the first time, I began to think that "South Pacific" may indeed be Rodgers's musically richest work.

Mr. Bobbie, whose directorial track record is varied, clearly thrives when forced to extract imaginative staging solutions from minimal means. His work here was his best since he oversaw "Chicago" for the Encores! series (which transferred to Broadway). The introduction of the strapping chorus of Seabees, who doffed black jackets to morph into flesh-and-blood Popeyes, was delightful. So was the crossed-dressed revue number "Honeybun," in which a sailor-suited Ms. McEntire courted a big lug in a grass skirt.

That lug was Alec Baldwin, a comic paradigm of understated gruffness as the enterprising Luther Billis. Undulating beneath a shimmering caftan, Lillias White perfectly balanced the coarseness and seductiveness of that old island enchantress Bloody Mary. In her hands, "Bali Ha'i" and "Happy Talk" actually sounded new.

But then so did "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," thanks to Ms. McEntire's disarmingly casual delivery. Open-voiced and open-faced, she was born to play Nellie, a self-described hick from the sticks who discovers unexpected depths within. As for Mr. Mitchell, his place in the pantheon of romantic musical leads is now guaranteed. In a season of dreary musical revivals, this "South Pacific" was enough to inspire, if just for a few hours, a cockeyed optimist's belief that old warhorses can still be transformed into spirited colts.
 

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