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South Pacific is a sturdier vehicle, to be sure, though the dyspeptic might well grumble that Richard Rodgers was clearly every bit as fond of “Some Enchanted Evening” as Andrew Lloyd Webber is of that nonsense about new dreams. (I’m just saying, there are a lot of reprises.)
And as has been noted ad nauseum since it opened to hosannas in 2008, Bartlett Sher’s revival for Lincoln Center has some graceful notes. His approach is open-hearted, straightforward, unselfconscious in a way many revivals of older musicals—this one dates to 1949—don’t manage. Its sunny-then-suddenly tormented heroine, Nellie Forbush, is embodied in the touring version that’s come ashore at the Kennedy Center by Carmen Cusack with freshness and charm. And its middle-aged hero, the French-born planter Emil De Becque, is played by one David Pittsinger, owner of a mahogany bass-baritone that is so very, very much the real thing that he alone might be worth the price of admission. (The rumble of his voice in dialogue is enough to make you salivate for the moment he’ll finally sing.)
What’s missing, alas, is the energy and spark that was so celebrated at the Vivian Beaumont. Maybe it’s some elusive chemistry the principals haven’t recaptured; maybe it’s the barn-wide Kennedy Center Opera House, or the way the staging, originally offered with the audience on three sides, has been reframed to play behind a proscenium arch, leaving patrons at more of distance. (It’s worth noting that Sher earlier negotiated that hurdle handsomely with his touring remount of The Light in the Piazza, which was every bit as lovely here as it was in New York.) Whatever the cause, South Pacific simply feels a little sleepy now and again.
And that’s a shame—because its gigantic 34-member cast and its embarrassment-of-riches orchestra together make such extraordinary noises. Big tunes, sung true, played fervently—from the rousing rowdiness of “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” to the sweetly lyrical tendernesses of “Younger Than Springtime,” these are songs at the core of the musical-theater canon, and you’ll rarely hear them sounding better. I just wish that were enough.