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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

That's a wonderful tune titled, "A Wonderful Guy," from the 1949 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical South Pacific.

SoPac_poster.jpg Broadway musicals, like Nellie Forbush, the character who sings that number, can be as corny as Kansas; but on some occasions they can be as expressive as any art form: as subtle as poetry, as expansive as a Cinerama motion picture and as simple or profound as a black-and-white photo. South Pacific is all of these things and more. It was only the second piece of musical theater to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama when it earned that distinction in 1950 and this year South Pacific is receiving its first Broadway revival since it premiered almost 60 years ago.

Directed by Bartlett Sher, this revival is a powerful reminder that the Broadway musical one held a position of influence in American life, one that makes the rollout of a summer blockbuster or the launch of a new video game system seem puny. For three hours, Sher and his actors and musicians make it inescapably clear how this show and its songs captivated the nation in the years just after World War II.

soldier.jpg Much of this is due to its 40-strong cast: the singing is first rate, the acting individual and never vulgar. The two leads, Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot, are heaven sent. They embody their characters in look, feel and most of all voice. O'Hara's performance dazzles, but it may be Szot who has the more difficult task. He makes the standard "Some Enchanted Evening" sound fresh and moving after decades of debasement by crooners.

Equally valuable to the success of this South Pacific is the orchestra. The recent touring production of My Fair Lady that came to the Ahmanson Theatre featured a band of sixteen musicians, this production boasts twice that number and the difference is like listening to music on a transistor radio versus digital stereo headphones. South Pacific needs no chandeliers, helicopters or other gimmicks—the special effects are the sounds of the instruments and the human voice.

nurses.jpg For fans of musical theater in Southern California, there are two options: fly to New York and see it on Broadway (where it runs at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre) or start a letter-writing campaign to ensure that whatever theater presents the now-inevitable touring production preserves the large orchestra and cast.

Any effort and money spent to see this revival is worth it, not just because productions of South Pacific are rare. The production serves as an excellent time machine, effectively recreating the costumes, accents and social mores of Americans in the 1940's. Also, South Pacific, a musical about Americans fighting an overseas war it appears to be losing, is entirely relevant today. But most of all, this South Pacific must be seen because it is simply first-class, theatrical entertainment.

bloody_mary.jpg Watching this revival made South Pacific feel like the theatrical equivalent of the film Casablanca. Both exude the style and wit of their medium's golden era. Every emotion feels familiar, every detail feels right, and there's not a whiff of pretension. Just red blooded characters in extraordinary circumstances trying to find love, not get killed and sing a few songs to deal with pain of war and heartache.

This James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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