South Pacific (10) - Stage

 Copyright © 2003 by Tony Medley


 Although Gilbert & Sullivan would never think of me as the very model of a modern major general, I know not only the lyrics and melodies of the songs in most of the great Broadway shows, but also the arrangements!  For 50 years Iíve been privileged to see the best.  Iíve seen Ďem on Broadway and Iíve seen Ďem at the Chandler and the Ahmanson and the Shubert and the Pantages.  Iíve heard Michael Crawford sing Music of the Night three times from the front row.  I saw Richard Burton put his hand on Elizabeth Taylorís breast in Private Lives at the Wilshire.  Iíve counted myself so fortunate to have seen what Iíve seen on the stage, Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, Yul Brynner in The King and I. Iíve seen the greatest actors in the worlds in the greatest plays!  I could go on and on. 

The first play I saw on Broadway was South Pacific.  My parents and sister and I had to run from lunch with Cardinal Spellman (where Joe Kennedy was the only other guest) to make the matinee.  Iíve seen South Pacific many times since.  I have even sat through the gawd-awful movie Fox had miscast and misdirected.  If thereís a hell, the people responsible for this movie should be there. 

So, although I was looking forward to the Robert Goulet revival at the Wilshire Theater, I wasnít expecting much more than wonderful music.  When we arrived and were told that Goulet was sick and his understudy, John Wilkerson, would be taking over, we were disappointed. I had never heard of John Wilkerson.  But the musicís so great, we stayed.  Little did I know I was in for the theater experience of my lifetime! 

I wasnít there when understudy Shirley MacLaine took over in Pajama Game (when the female lead, Carol Haney, broke her leg) and became a star, and John Wilkersonís no gypsy, but I now know the feeling of seeing someone of whom youíve never heard take over the stage. 

Everything about the play today was electric.  From the first note of the overture I was bursting with excitement.  You could feel the tension in the audience as Wilkerson started his first song, Twin Soliloquies, a duet with Nellie Forbush (Amanda Watkins, who is cute as a bugís ear and possesses a strong, beautiful voice).  His voice was rich, vibrant, and confident. 

There was chemistry between him and Nellie.  The play progressed.  At the first note of almost every song I felt a flush of joyful emotion.  Whatís wrong with me? I wondered.  Why does this beautiful but familiar music bring tears to my eyes after so many years?   

But it continued throughout the play.  Finally, and again totally unexpected, came one of those magic moments you never forget.  Near the end of the Second Act Nellie dumps Emile.  He commiserates with Lt. Cable.  Then he stands stage right with a small spotlight on his face, the rest of the stage dark, hands at his side, motionless, and sings This Nearly Was Mine to a deadly quiet, but totally enraptured audience.  Iíve never experienced a more moving moment in a Broadway musical.  I just forgot about the tears streaming down my face.  The audience gave him an ovation that seemed as if it would never stop. 

I wish everyone could see this play with John Wilkerson as Emile.  But this is a touring company and Robert Goulet will recover and return and Wilkerson will return to his non-singing role as Capt. Brackett.  Fortunately for me, Iíll have this performance forever in my memory.

The End