Winspear's South Pacific Casts A Sexy Spell, Getting Hot But Never Too Heavy

As Emile and Nellie, Jason Howard and Carmen Cusack bring tropical heat (and great singing) to the Winspear in South Pacific.
Kim Ritzenthaler

South Pacific cuts right to the chase. Moments after the orchestra plays the overture, ex-patriot Frenchman Emile de Becque begins making overtures of his own, playing up to pretty Navy nurse Nellie Forbush. They're at the end of their first real date. Under the influence of good brandy and the warm breezes wafting into Emile's island plantation manor, the couple flirts with a feverish intensity. For some stupid reason, she keeps pulling away.

Then Emile sings "Some Enchanted Evening" to Nellie, that most intoxicating of love songs and only the fourth number into the show, and it's amour all around. They fall in love with each other, and we fall in love with them for the next two and a half hours. That's the irresistible charm of this show. To listen to its glorious score is to be swept into musical theater paradise and into the fantastic idea that across a crowded room, true love waits with arms outstretched.

First song to last, Bartlett Sher's 2008 Lincoln Center revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is a revelation. It is the first major tour to hit the Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, and is it ever a wowzer way to inaugurate the Lexus Broadway Series. Everything about it sizzles: soaring vocals, vivid acting, eye-popping scenic effects. There's even a flash of nudity. Look fast when those cute sailors clear the showers before Miss Forbush washes that man right outta her hair.


South Pacific

South Pacific continues at the Winspear Opera House through January 3. Call 214-880-0202.

The show's in the hottest of Dallas' new venues, the Winspear, a voluptuous debutante among opera houses and, it turns out, a pretty swell place to see a big, Broadway-size show. After suffering decades of grisly sound at the old Music Hall at Fair Park, now we can hear every syllable that's spoken and every word that's sung. The Winspear's amplification and mixing are crisp, precise and perfectly balanced. The 2,200-seat auditorium wraps around the audience like an intimate playhouse and is beautifully designed for music and voices. It's a theatergoer's acoustic aphrodisiac.

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All elements lend a blush of excitement to this especially sexy South Pacific. Unusual for a show from the mid-20th century, it begins with a serious seduction already under way on a remote Pacific island during a lull in the action in World War II. Forty-four-year-old widower Emile has seen 20-ish Nellie across the floor at an officers' club dance. He pursues, she hesitates. He's rich and attractive, but has two mixed-race children. Even the "cock-eyed optimist" in Nellie can't see how to square that with her Old South upbringing. She'll try, though, once she gets the shampoo out of her eyes.

The B-plot is a parallel study in class and racial conflict, pretty bold stuff for a show that premiered in 1949. Preppy Marine Lieutenant Joseph Cable, fresh out of Princeton, falls for Liat, the gamine daughter of Bloody Mary (Dallas resident Keala Settle), the island's Tonkinese peddler of local souvenirs, which include Liat's virginity. A hallmark of the rapturous restyling of this show by Sher is the menacing tone of Bloody Mary's two big numbers, the mesmeric "Bali Ha'i" and "Happy Talk." Often performed as a comic moment, here "Happy Talk" serves as a dark warning from mother to daughter to keep conversation trivial—"talk about things you like to do"—when she's with the rich, white American boy.

With only two couples getting it on, that leaves a whole mess of sex-starved Navy Seabees remembering "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" as they knock around the beachside naval station. Led by rough-hewn sailor Luther Billis (funny, fiery Matthew Saldivar), "Dame" is a full-throated hymn to the loneliness of young draftees who've ended up one island away from available women. "We got nothin' to put on a clean, white suit for/What we need is what there ain't no substitute for!"

Choreography by Sher and Christopher Gattelli (credited with "musical staging") is very guy's-guy on this one, full of stomps and fist pumps, not a pirouette in sight. On designer Michael Yeargan's scenery, towering twin volcanoes fade in and out of the clouds on the upstage backdrop. But during "Dame," it's the sailors' libidos that seem likely to erupt any second.

There's just enough broad shtick by Billis and the men in uniform to get laughs where they belong in this South Pacific, but there is a strong sense of authenticity in all the characters that keeps the production from turning into another revival laden with the winks and shrugs of modern actors doing vintage material.

The leads certainly have believable chemistry. As Emile, Welsh opera singer Jason Howard, who joined the tour for the first time in Dallas, is broad-shouldered and handsome but not too handsome. (Actually, Howard looks a bit like Troy McClure, the Simpsons character, at least in profile.) And even if he is a little stiff in dialogue, Howard's singing is as rich, warm and sweet as the stuff you pour on flapjacks. He sure clicks in the clinches with his gal Nellie, played by Carmen Cusack. Her Nellie is a honeybun, but it's nice that she's not as cupcake-y as this production's original, Kelli O'Hara. Cusack is more the spunky Mary Martin type (the original Nellie in '49), with a similar rasp at the edge of her belty soprano. She also has a little jiggle in her thighs, which looks exactly right in that World War II-era turquoise two-piece she wears for the hair-washing ditty. (Costumes by Catherine Zuber are straight from the period, with witty touches in fabrics and splashes of color.)

As Joe Cable, the tall and exceedingly dishy Anderson Davis makes a touching transition from cocky newcomer to malaria-addled dreamer. His scenes with the tiny Sumie Maeda, as a Liat who dances her feelings instead of speaking, are quietly heartbreaking. There's no way he's going to marry the native girl, but at least this Joe feels guilty about loving and leaving her. He delivers the anthem summing up Rodgers and Hammerstein's condemnation of racism and intolerance: "You've got to be taught to be afraid/Of people whose eyes are oddly made,/And people whose skin is a different shade/You've got to be carefully taught!"

Sure, the second act's swerve into military maneuvers is too talky after a romance-laden first act that's a bit too long, but South Pacific, thanks to this splendid production, proves that it has more great music, note for note, than any other R&H show. (Go ahead and argue for The Sound of Music, but you'd be wrong.)

It also has real people in it. Emile, Nellie, Luther, Joe and the others are simply flawed human beings trying to learn from their mistakes. There they are: thrown together thousands of miles from home on an island in the path of war and under those steaming volcanoes. Why not fall in love right now? Why not sing about it?

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