TAMPA — Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II reached some kind of pinnacle with South Pacific. If not their absolutely greatest musical — Oklahoma! or Carousel deserve that honor — it has the most exhilarating string of songs. Some Enchanted Evening, There Is Nothin' Like a Dame, Bali Ha'i, I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair, A Wonderful Guy, Younger Than Springtime, This Nearly Was Mine — one after another, they're all in the score.
The tour of the much-decorated (seven Tony Awards) revival of South Pacific, directed by Bartlett Sher, opened Tuesday at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Here are a few thoughts on the production.
Cockeyed optimist: Carmen Cusack is the "little hick" from Arkansas, Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, and she wins the audience right away with A Cockeyed Optimist, which is wonderfully expressive, almost melancholy in her twangy phrasing, but she also belts out the bright climax. Cusack reminded me of a young Glenn Close who can sing.
Isn't it romantic? Some Enchanted Evening must be the greatest romantic male ballad ever composed. For men of a certain age, it's what they sing in the shower. Jason Howard, playing Emile de Becque, the French planter with a past who falls in love with Nellie, delivers it and his other big number, This Nearly Was Mine, in a magnificent basso profundo.
Word of the day: "Bromidic," meaning trite, is in Hammerstein's lyrics of A Wonderful Guy.
Heavenly harp: No musical theater score uses the harp more imaginatively than the orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett for South Pacific. Harpist Michelle Sell is playing the glorious glissandos this week.
Who says there's no dance? For a musical known for its relative lack of dance (the original production didn't have a choreographer), this revival works in some interesting movement, from the nurse turned ballerina on point during the Thanksgiving Follies to the Seabees hoofing across the sand in Bloody Mary to Nellie's frisky little cartwheel in A Wonderful Guy. Christopher Gattelli did the musical staging.
Greatest generation: The appeal of South Pacific was always strongest to people who lived through World War II, but now that generation is largely gone, or at least not attending much theater anymore. So this production has a challenge not only to remain faithful to the original vision but also to update it, and I think that is most evident in the stylized staging of the problematic Act II, which gets awfully talky as Emile and Lt. Joe Cable (Anderson Davis) go behind enemy lines and the sailors prepare for battle. Michael Yeargan's bamboo sets and Donald Holder's lighting combine to create shimmering effects.
Sex appeal: Usually, the Madame Butterfly love affair between Cable and the Tonkinese girl Liat (Sumie Maeda) is played for innocent charm, but the relationship is more provocative in Sher's direction. Maeda's child-like appearance makes her mating dance almost shockingly sexual, and as Bloody Mary, Keala Settle's performance of Happy Talk is highly suggestive.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.