PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: South Pacific — Bali Ha'i Ballyhoo

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: South Pacific — Bali Ha'i Ballyhoo "Your own special island," with its thick forest of Rodgers & Hammerstein evergreens — Bali Ha'i — materialized on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont April 3, as South Pacific finally returned to its roots for its first Broadway revival.
Kelli O'Hara, Paulo Szot, Matthew Morrison, Li Jun Li and Loretta Ables Sayre, Danny Burstein and Bartlett Sher.
Kelli O'Hara, Paulo Szot, Matthew Morrison, Li Jun Li and Loretta Ables Sayre, Danny Burstein and Bartlett Sher. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The show docked there just four days shy of the 59th anniversary of its original sighting.

"What took it so long to return?" a R&H spokesperson was asked. "Who can explain it? Who can tell you why?" Bert Fink shrugged lightly. And that, somehow, said it.

Some enchanted evening was had by all. That grand old warhorse of a World War II musical which Joshua Logan, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II stitched together from James A. Michener's poetic and fragmented "Tales of the South Pacific" has, over the years, become synonymous with musical theatre. The score is in the DNA of every showgoer, and it has only to assert itself for it to play you like a harp.

"And what about that harp!" a still-excited Alice Playten trilled later at the Tavern on the Green after-party. "You could hear it. You could see it. It was beautiful."

Indeed, the orchestra was beautiful. The thrust stage of the Beaumont receded during the overture to reveal a full 30-piece orchestra, lovingly conducted by Ted Sperling, and at the center of it was a harp crowned by an orchid lei. This spectacle — a luxurious rarity these days — drew thunderous applause from the audience. A note in the Playbill points out that Rodgers' music was "being presented in the 30-player orchestration created for the original production. The scores and orchestral parts were restored by The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization using all existing material, including manuscripts (Rodgers, Trude Rittmann), the full orchestral scores (Robert Russell Bennett) and the individual instrumental parts played by the original orchestra." Basically you hear what audiences heard at the Majestic in 1949.

Mary Rodgers, Alice Hammerstein, Keira and James Naughton, Rebecca Luker, Connie Fisher and Sam Waterston.
photo by Aubrey Reuben

South Pacific is the only show in Tony history to sweep all four acting categories, winning awards for Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza, Juanita Hall and Myron McCormick — impossible, iconic acts to follow, but Kelli O'Hara, Paulo Szot, Loretta Ables Sayre and Danny Burstein gamely and bravely give it a go, meeting with startling success. Recruited from opera , the Brazilian Szot strikes a commanding and convincing presence as the French plantation owner in Hawaii, Emile de Becque. The part made Pinza a middle-aged matinee idol, and it wears well on Szot — even though he's six years short of the character's 44 years. He sings big, and that's what counts here.

"It's my first musical, ever," Szot confessed, "and the reaction of the public has been amazing. From my first moment on stage, I felt like the audience was so connected to us — like they were singing along. I'm very lucky to be able to do this because these are wonderful songs. And to be able to sing eight shows a week! First of all, it's not easy at all to do something like that because I'm not used to it. Opera singers don't do that. We have, like, three shows a week. But, after this experience, I'm finding I enjoy doing it so many times because I can find out more and more about the character."

Another stranger in a strange land making her Broadway debut is Sayre, who hails from Hawaii and delivers the textbook Bloody Mary, the native matron who peddles shrunken heads and grass skirts — and, when the opportunity presents itself, her own daughter to a susceptible young lieutenant. "I see this man as the best thing that could possibly happen to my daughter," said Sayre, opting for the soft-focus reading of the character. "We're living on a very small island. She could have been married off to a young native boy and had lots of children, and she would probably end up having the same life I've had. I want something better for her than that."

It's a circuitous route that brought her to Broadway — but a logical one, in her view: "Ted Sperling was having lunch with an actor friend of mine when they were still looking at Bloody Marys, and my friend said, 'You're doing South Pacific — why don't you look in the South Pacific? Have you thought of that?' A casting agent with Telsey and Company was going to Hawaii a week later, and they asked him to give up a day of his vacation and hold an audition. There were many of us there — it was a 12-hour audition — and I got a call-back three days later, and they flew me here in August."

Her happy landing on Broadway was understandably emotional. "I could barely hold it together tonight," she admitted about her curtain call. "It was hard for me to realize I'm doing a Broadway show, something I have dreamed of doing all of my life. And to have that dream come to fruition two days after I turned 50 — incredible."

O'Hara, who last graced the Beaumont stage with a Tony-nominated performance in a musical penned by Richard Rodgers' grandson, Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza), was the evening's Ensign Nellie Forbush, not just another little girl from Little Rock — pert and appealing as all get-out, even with the warts-and-all (an in-bred, stubbornly persistent bigotry that jeopardizes her romance with de Becque).

She, too, found the evening a very emotional experience. "I was very moved tonight," she said. "My whole family's here — and my friends. Those are the most special shows. I could feel the support coming and going — from the audience and from those around me on stage — that we'd come to this point, and we were very proud."

In the surefire comic-relief slot of the seabee slacker and con-artist, Luther Billis — a street guy trapped on the sandy shores of the tropics, very much the fish out of water — Burstein not only measures up to the memories of Ray Walston in the movie version, but he also makes you imagine what Bert Lahr might have done to the role.

"That's quite an honor," Burstein replied, warming to the allusion. "He was one of my heroes, truly. I loved Bert Lahr. I had a great time working on this show. I loved it from the very beginning. I actually did the show when I was 17 — playing Billis — in a summer theatre in Keen, NH. I had a great time then, and I had a great time tonight."

Not that Burstein has cornered the market of hero-worship — in fact, he's passing it on. Noah Weisberg, who's Billis' chief stooge, admitted, "I saw Danny in The Drowsy Chaperone four times. And now, it's like working with a hero of mine."

Matthew Morrison, who was O'Hara's love interest in The Light in the Piazza but here plays the grass skirt-chasing Lieutenant Cable, shares a duet with her — "My Girl Back Home," which was cut from the stage show but restored for the movie version. "With that 30-piece orchestra, it's amazing," Morrison said. "I'm having a ball. I want to get there and sing 'Younger Than Springtime' and watch Ted Sperling conducting with such passion — it just keeps me going. It's watching someone do what they do."

His native girlfriend in the show, Liat, marks Li Jun Li's Broadway bow, and the milestone was just starting to settle for her. "I don't know what to think about it," she admitted. "It's slow hitting me, but it hasn't, really." Her only regret? "That Liat has so little to do. I wish she had more." One thing missing is the pantomime that generally accompanies "Happy Talk." "We decided to make it a little more real."

The show's director, Bartlett Sher, had the relieved mien of a man who just successfully negotiated a tightrope walk — which indeed he had, remaining as true to the text as possible while still bringing out new dimensions in it. "I didn't try to change it as much as I tried to see how deep it ran," he explained. "I did a lot of deep exploring of the show. I put some of the original text back in."

Case in point: by bringing Nellie's bias to a fuller bloom, he underscores the heartbreak that ends Act I. "That's an extraordinary scene. She and Emile really have it out, and you realize how much they love each other and how — sometimes — it's maybe not going to work. We put some text back that was originally cut, which was clearer about the kind of person Nellie was and the kind of world she came from. We did that in three or four places — discreet places returning the text to the show."

The rough patch in the show occurs in Act II, which, plot-leadened and songless, almost plays like World War II, but here it has been seasoned with reprises, including a march-dirge version of "Honey Bun," in which the cast regroups in military formations. "I was trying to make it so that you got a sense of the wars that followed," Sher said. "Since World War II, there has been Korea, Vietnam, Iraq I and Iraq 2. I wanted to convey the sense of what kind of military culture we are."

Did he feel intimidated by the fact that this would be the first Broadway revival of the show? "Completely and consistently. Terrified. Everybody in the world came up to me and told me it was their favorite show of all time, and I kept thinking, 'I'm going to screw this up for everybody.' It felt like we could only fail. We had to get it exactly right, and we had to aim high and do a great job or we were going to fail."

Among the contented customers on opening night: Rebecca Luker (Burstein's wife, leaving Mary Poppins in charge of the children for the evening), Alex Witchell and Frank Rich, Contact's director-choreographer Susan Stroman and book writer John Weidman (both preparing for a reading of a new Lincoln Center piece, called Happiness, with songs by Grey Gardens' Scott Frankel and Michael Korie), director Jack O'Brien, Ragtime's Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, playwrights John Guare, Alfred Uhry and A.R. Gurney Jr., Dividing the Estate director Michael Wilson, Mark Nelson and Richard Easton.

Honored guests of the evening, and pretty contented ones at that, were the daughters of South Pacific's songwriters, Mary Rodgers and Alice Hammerstein.

"It was wonderful," the latter declared. "I don't think anyone has done a production like this. This is really wonderful. It's like you've never seen the other shows."

She didn't make the original launching of South Pacific — "I wasn't here. I was getting married, out in California" — but Mary Rodgers was, and she remembers it well. "I remember the party. It was at some great hotel, maybe the Sherry-Netherland. Ordinarily, we were all too scared to give a party in those days. We just went to Sardi's, shivering with fright till the papers came out. But that night we had a ball."

And, as if enough theatrical lightning hadn't been struck, that was the night that her date, Stephen Sondheim, met Harold Prince. "I introduced them," beamed Rodgers.