3. A Cockeyed Optimist
4. Twin Soliloquies
5. Some Enchanted Evening
6. Bloody Mary
7. There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame
8. Bali Ha’i
9. My Girl Back Home
10. I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair
11. Reprise: Some Enchanted Evening
12. A Wonderful Guy
13. Reprise: Bali Ha’i
14. Younger Than Springtime
15. Reprise: A Wonderful Guy
16. This Is How It Feels
17. Finale Act I
19. Happy Talk
20. Reprise: Younger Than Springtime
21. Honey Bun
22. You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught
23. This Nearly Was Mine
24. Reprise: Some Enchanted Evening
25. Reprise: Honey Bun
26. Finale Ultimo
Robert Russell Bennett
When a recording of a brand new musical is released, it’s easy to judge its merits as a standalone entity. But what can one say about a new recording of a show like South Pacific, a score that’s been recorded umpteen times with such a wide variety of casts – ranging from opera stars to Broadway singers to film actors?
I can think of at least eight previous recordings of South Pacific from a variety of film, TV, stage, and studio-only enterprises, and it’s difficult to pinpoint which are the most noteworthy. Weighing the differences, in the end, comes down to several things – the quality of cast members, minor textual changes, and recording quality – and there’s something to satisfy each of these three categories in recommending this Broadway revival recording within a sea of other similar offerings – most notably its two brilliant leads, Broadway veteran Kelli O’Hara and opera veteran Paulo Szot as Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque respectively.
Based on the book Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener, the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II musical version is set on two islands during World War II – one a U.S. military outpost, the other the mysterious Bali Ha’i, inhabited solely by natives. South Pacific focuses on the the love story of French planter Emile de Becque – who has two mixed-race children by his late wife – and U.S. Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, a relationship which is juxtaposed against that of U.S. lieutenant Joe Cable and Polynesian native Liat, the daughter of a mysterious Bali Ha’i woman named Bloody Mary, who sells grass skirts to the Navy Seabees. With its eagerness to tackle issues of then-forbidden interracial love, South Pacific was a controversial success when it premiered on Broadway over nearly sixty years ago in 1949, running for nearly five years. The show defied the social conventions of its time, declaiming racism as “carefully taught,” learned behavior – far from the birth defect that the naive Nellie would like to brand it.
Besides for a brief stint at City Center in 1955, the musical, which has been produced around the world and in a variety of formats, had yet to receive a full-scale Broadway revival until Lincoln Center Theater mounted its current production in 2008. Though rumors had been swirling as to the possible casting of film actress Scarlett Johansson as Nellie, in an admirable turn of events Lincoln Center cast the show not by finding the biggest names but by finding the best talents. As Nellie Forbush, Kelli O’Hara – who shone as Babe in 2006’s Pajama Game revival – brings a lustrous soprano and a charming innocence to the part, particularly in Nellie’s signature tunes, which include A Cockeyed Optimist, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair, and A Wonderful Guy. O’Hara, a bona fide success in the role, is a vast improvement at the very least over the last recorded Nellie Forbush, country singer Reba McEntire, whose countrified “hick” Nellie in 2006’s Carnegie Hall concert recording was too full of vocal scoops and lyric flubs for comfort. Szot, who won the Tony Award for Best Actor for his role, brings to the table not only his velvety operatic baritone but also a deeply-felt insight into his character, which is most apparent during the dialogue sections of the recording.
Besides for O’Hara and Szot, there are several other standouts within the cast, including Loretta Ables Sayre as the crafty Bloody Mary, Danny Burstein as the wise-cracking Luther Billis, and, as the suave Lt. Joe Cable, Matthew Morrison, who, besides for mastering his character’s signature song, “Younger Than Springtime,” is also given the lovely song “My Girl Back Home” to sing, a number that is cut from most productions and recordings of the musical. The male chorus of Seabees also shines, providing robust support during its numbers, Bloody Mary and There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame.
Embellishing it all is a lush-sounding full orchestra playing the original orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett, who took home a special posthumous Tony Award this year for his brilliant work. Though nostalgia or historical value may bring one back to the original 1949 recording with the legendary Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, it’s undeniable that recording quality has skyrocketed since the days of LPs, and the noteworthy performances here are done their full justice by this worthy recording of a Broadway classic. As Bloody Mary sings, “Bali Ha’i may call you.” This recording may as well, and it may just be worth answering.