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Review: South Pacific

The tropics—and great theater—bloom at the Kennedy Center for the holidays

The Bartlett Sher-directed production of South Pacific is currently on a national tour following a sold-out, Tony Award-winning run on Broadway.

Star rating: ✭✭✭½ out of four

Holiday productions can be a mixed bag, running the gamut from faded sugar-plum fairies to anti-festivity punk diatribes. But a good seasonal show combines all the elements of a regular hit (a stellar cast, gorgeous staging, solid plot) with a kind of holi-dazzle that reminds you it’s the most wonderful time of the year—without a chubby Santa or glittery snowman in sight.

South Pacific, currently at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, has festive spirit in spades, despite the fact that its tropical locale is about as far from Lapland as is geographically possible. The minute the curtain rises on Michael Yeargan’s vivid set, the stage is awash in glorious color, lavish instrumentals, and infectious energy. The brightest things onstage are the two leads: Carmen Cusack as the naive Ensign Nellie Forbush and David Pittsinger as the mysterious French expatriate Emile du Becque.

The Bartlett Sher-directed production is currently on a national tour following a sold-out, Tony Award-winning run on Broadway. Sher’s nostalgic, sparkling show seems to defer to the original Rodgers and Hammerstein sentiment rather than any darker, contemporary interpretation. The love affair between Nellie and Emile as well as the subplots surrounding merciless hawker Bloody Mary, her amiable daughter Liat, and the ill-fated Lieutenant Joseph Cable are remarkably undated. But rather than amp up the racial commentary, Sher lets the music speak for itself, and the result is powerfully moving (even though Cable’s uncomfortable transactional relationship with the presumably underage Liat is somewhat glossed over).

Cusack’s performance as the “cockeyed optimist” Nellie is effortlessly charming, and her vocals are flawless. David Pittsinger, one of the only leads to transfer from Broadway, has a rich, enviable baritone, although occasionally his acting pales in comparison. Props also to Timothy Gulan as the endearingly slapstick sailor Luther Billis and Jodi Kimura as the vaguely sinister Bloody Mary. Ensemble cast members also do a superb job in keeping the energy moving, which is vital in a three-hour family show.

South Pacific
hasn’t lost its ability to shock—audience members audibly gasped when Nellie declared that she couldn’t marry a man whose children were “colored”­—and its grittier subjects of war, prejudice, and alien cultures remain. But as a feel-good showstopper, it’s hard to beat, and the musical numbers are as enchanting as ever.

At the Kennedy Center through January 16. Tickets ($39 to $150) are available here.

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