OK, climbing out on a limb, I’m going to say what no one else has said. Here goes… Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” despite that glorious score and racial-divide themes that are still provocative, isn’t a very good show – on film or on stage.
For the past five decades now, Joshua Logan’s 1958 film version, which Logan also staged on Broadway in 1949, has been the subject of much criticism, and I’ve participated, despite the fact that when I was young and unformed, “S.P.” was a favorite film. Until I outgrew it. I thought.
But watching the recent PBS telecast of a live performance of the acclaimed 2008 Lincoln Center revival, replete with its original stars, Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot, my jaw dropped and my mind opened.
After all these years of making snarky remarks about the Logan film, I suddenly realized that I have never seen a good production of the show, this one included. I’ve seen various regional productions and even remember a revival with Florence Henderson, also staged at Lincoln Center, in the 1970s, and frankly, I can’t think of any that were very good – again, despite that grand score and the racial-intolerance plot.
And, remember, with a book by Hammerstein and Logan, the show won a Pulitzer Prize. That makes it untouchable, right? No, you'd be wrong.
It’s the book – to which the ’58 film version and the unwatchable 2001 Glenn Close TV remake were so faithful – that’s bad. Filled with awful dialogue, it apparently engenders bad performances across the board. (Full Disclosure: I’ve no idea what Mary Martin and Enzio Pinza were like in the original, but nearly everyone else I’ve seen has been subpar.)
Which brings me back to Bartlett Sher’s grotesquely misconceived, self-important reinvention for the current revival, which is a much darker reading of the material – so dark that even the buffoon Luther Billis comes across as a semi-serious character. Sher’s version, like all the other “S.P.s,” is noteworthy for its bad acting - not so much O’Hara, who is fine as Nellie Forbush, but the men. All the men. Somehow, every male performance in this production is cringe-inducing and, while Szot has the requisite show-stopping voice as Emile de Becque, he is a lumpy presence and his facial contortions while singing are not pretty to experience.
“South Pacific” may have a laurelled history, but like its successor in “serious musical comedy” – that would be “West Side Story” – it is a show that remains melodically glorious but resistant to good acting.