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South Pacific at Carnegie Hall (10/10)

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 (not a musical, but still great theater).  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 world in the greatest plays!  I could go on and on. 

The first play I saw on Broadway was Rodgers and Hammersteinís South Pacific.  Iíve seen South Pacific many times since.  I even sat through the gawd-awful 1958 movie Fox miscast and misdirected.  If thereís a hell, the people responsible for this movie should be there. 

So I approached the PBS telecast of the 2005 Carnegie Hall production starring Reba McEntire as Nellie Forbush and Brian Stokes Mitchell as her lover, the expatriate French planter, Emil de Becque, with some anticipation, but, since Iíve heard the music so often, not a lot of excitement.

The production was really just a concert. The orchestra (the Orchestra of St. Lukes, led by the primus inter pares of Broadway conductors, Paul Gemignani) was onstage, the actors were not in costume, and they were reading their lines and song lyrics from books they held in their hands. How could this compete with anything I have seen before, even the Fox film?

Believe me, I couldnít have enjoyed it more with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. There was chemistry between Nellie and de Becque. With one exception, the players equaled what I saw on Broadway - Jason Danieley was the best Lt. Cable Iíve seen. Lillias White as Bloody Mary came close to the luminous original, Juanita Hall. The only fly in the ointment was the horrible miscasting of Alec Baldwin as the comedic seabee Luther Billis. While it is true that Ray Walston created such a sparkling, captivating character that even the great Olivier would pale in comparison, Baldwin is not only not in the same league, heís not playing the same sport. Worse, he was unprepared, even losing his place at one point while McEntire vamped as he scurried to get back on board.

The play progressed.  From the spellbinding overture with its haunting French Horns, orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett for the 1949 opening, at the first note of almost every song I felt a flush of joyful emotion.  Even after so many years and so many hearings this beautiful but familiar music brought tears to my eyes.   

The emotion continued to flood through me throughout the concert.  McEntire is perfect as Nellie Forbush. Her beautiful voice with its country twang is ideal for songs like ďIím in Love with a Wonderful GuyĒ (Iím as corny as Kansas in August, Iím as normal as blueberry pieÖĒ) and ďIím Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.Ē

While McEntire was vibrant throughout, Mitchell started off shaky. His rendition of ďSome Enchanted Evening,Ē one of the great love songs of the American Theater, was something less than enchanting. But his acting held him up until the second act, when he had a second chance with a song that is underappreciated, but every bit as good as ď Some Enchanted Evening.Ē

Near the end of the Second Act Nellie dumps Emile.  He commiserates with Lt. Cable.  Then he stands hands at his side, motionless, and sings ďThis Nearly Was MineĒ to a deadly quiet, but totally enraptured audience.  This is one of the most moving moments in a Broadway musical and Mitchell was at least as good as old Ezio Pinza.  The audience gave him an ovation that seemed as if it would never stop. 

After two hours, I hated to see it end. This wonderful production has led me to the conclusion that I guess I have to admit it; my name is Tony Medley and Iím a SouthPacificaholic.