South Pacific: Sher Genius

Bart Sher gives the 5th Avenue its greatest production since Hairspray

written by Tim Appelo

When Ken Tynan's infant daughter chewed the pearl necklace of original South Pacific star Mary Martin, Martin said, "That's right, baby, get used to the real thing!" Bart Sher's South Pacific is the real thing, a can't-miss masterpiece.  

Michael Yeargan's set (brilliantly lit by Donald Holder) summons an ambiguous paradise shimmering behind giant slat curtains that rise and plunge you into a disorienting otherworld. Carmen Cusack's Nellie Forbush (left) has more than a bit of Martin's down-home brio, and she makes us grasp the peril of feeling high as a flag on the Fourth of July you might fall. As her big lug of a lover, baritone Rod Gilfry rattles the 5th's chinoiserie chandelier. Their duets go down like 100-year-old port with a Perrier-Jouët chaser. 

As the Princeton boy with a doomed colonialist yen for a Vietnamese beauty (Sumie Maeda), tenor Anderson Davis (left) is complicatedly sweet, like a young Chateau d'Yquem. Maeda fires the almost wordless role with a dancer's passion.

Matthew Saldivar couldn't be swaggerier as the scamming clown Billis (below, center). Yet even he gives a glimpse of the woundable heart that beats beneath the show's exhilarating exterior.

If it were just fun, it wouldn't have been a hit in 1949; like Mister Roberts or The Best Years of Our Lives, it shines bright thanks to its shadows. Or ghosts, like the spectral, melancholy Seabees marching to the ironic melody "101 Pounds of Fun" near the end. Like an orchestra conductor, Sher uses tempo for emotional color. His South Pacific plays almost an hour slower than the Reba McEntire concert version. He hits the high points hard — and they are high points of modern culture, the melodies Lennon/McCartney were trying to beat — but he tugs real tears too. 

Sure, it's got to be better on Broadway, with bigger stars, three more in the orchestra and a thrust stage to increase the vivid intimacy.

Conceivably you'll say what a Brit critic harrumphed when South Pacific first hit London: "We might've welcomed it twice as loudly if we'd not been told from New York that it is four times as good as it is."

But it's good. And it's here until February 21.


Photos by Peter Coombs.