Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

South by Southwest

June 29, 2010

David Pittsinger and Carmen Cusack
Photo: Curtis Brown/CTG 2010

Throughout this month as L.A. Opera has been mounting a visionary and challenging production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, right across the Music Center plaza, Center Theater Group is hosting a production that could not be more different in sensibility despite some crucial underlying operatic leanings. On Sunday, I finally got a break to see this touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific in Bartlett Sher’s much-lauded staging that brought the work back to Broadway for the first time in decades. And even in this reduced touring version, it’s an impressive, if conventional and easy to access, show. Which for many theater-goers, may make it a perfect summer entertainment. The music is familiar to everyone and if you insist on hummable, memorable tunes, they're here in spades and performed quite expertly to boot. If anything surprised me in the work itself, it was how difficult that many of these vocal roles seem to be. Granted none of it is Brünnhilde or Siegfried, but I can understand why the role of Emile de Becque has turned into such a plum role for operatic Baritones. In the latter half of the L.A. run, the role has been played by David Pittsinger who also appeared in the Broadway run. Having seen him in L.A. Opera’s last couple of turns at Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, I was pleased to see him here being totally believable as the expatriate French plantation owner. In fact the caliber of his vocal performance runs the risk of calling some of the other casts’ vocal qualities into question. South Pacific appears to musically be written for another time with differently trained voices perhaps not quite so reliant on amplification. The only other cast member I felt who kept up to Pittsinger was Keala Settle’s Bloody Mary which gave me major Dolora Zajick-Azucena flashbacks. (Or was that premonitions.)

Anderson Davis and Sumie Maeda
Photo: Peter Coombs/CTG 2010

Of course, vocal technique is not the only thing that’s changed since the 1940s. The stage is littered with much harder bodies than were typically the norm in either New York or the South Pacific of the period. These naval officers appear to have had plenty of gym time in between their duties for Uncle Sam. But this is really a minor detail. Sher's production is energetic and bright and convincingly acted by a wonderful large cast. It’s a detailed and frankly loving vision that doesn’t stray into camp and avoids the temptation of visual overkill. Scenes are often set with little more than horizontal bamboo curtains and light with the faint glow of sand dunes and the sea upstage. Things can drag a bit at times, particularly with some of the more dated melodramatic material in the piece. And the examination of racist attitudes of the period seems a little oblique considering that it’s a topic still very relevant to a modern audience. In fact this production seems a lot less relevant to today's world than one might wish. But certainly nostalgia is what some people want out of the theater, and frankly they could do much worse than this highly enjoyable revival. South Pacific continues at the Ahmanson Theater through July 17.


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