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South Pacific at the Ahmanson

by Tony Medley

For my money, South Pacific is the best Broadway musical ever produced. I’ve seen it innumerable times, the first on Broadway a few years after it opened. From the first notes of the wonderful overture, conducted at my performance by Braden Toan, the music never fails to bring tears to my eyes. This iteration, at the Ahmanson until July 17, was no exception.

Carmen Cusack plays Ensign Nellie Forbush, and she is a throwback to Broadway’s original casting of Mary Martin in that she has a terrific voice and can accomplish what little dancing that’s required of Nellie. But she’s not the beauty I like to see in Nellie, which I got with Mitzi Gaynor in the movie and, more recently, Reba McIntire in the Carnegie Hall 2005 production (that reprised at the Hollywood Bowl).

Emile de Becque (originally played by opera star Ezio Pinza in what was, in 1949, a daring choice) was badly mistreated in the movie by the casting of Rossano Brazzi and the dubbing of his voice by Girogio Tozzi. However, I have seen some spectacular Emiles, like Brian Stokes Mitchell in the Carnegie Hall version. But the best I’ve ever seen was by an understudy. In 2002, a touring company came to Los Angeles with Robert Goulet playing Emile. When I arrived at the theater, however, it was announced that Goulet was ill and that the part would be played by his understudy, John Wilkerson, a man of whom I had never heard. My friend, who was a friend of Goulet’s, left (“I just came to see Bobby”). I stayed, and what happened reminded me of what happened when understudy Shirley MacLaine took over in Pajama Game (when the female lead, Carol Haney, broke her leg) and became a star. Wilkerson didn’t become a star that night, but he stole the show.

That leads up to Rod Gilfry’s performance as Emile. He establishes virtually no chemistry with Nellie. His voice is strong, but my friend who accompanied me is a singer and she said when he was singing loudly he was a little sharp. I didn’t notice it, but I did notice that he had trouble walking. I don’t know if it’s his normal gait or if he was suffering from an injury, but it detracted from his manliness, and if there’s one thing that Emile de Becque is, it’s a man. Even so, however, Gilfry’s voice is strong and manly and his performance of This Nearly Was Mine, his sad soliloquy when he thinks he’s lost Nelllie, always a show-stopper, brought the audience to its feet.

I always run into the same major problem with watching the play, however, and that relates to the role of Luther Billis. The character of Billis wasn’t in the original idea of producer Josh Logan, who intended to convert two of James Michener’s stories from Tales of the South Pacific, Fo’ Dolla’ and Our Heroine into a musical. Since both stories were serious in tone, Michener agreed to include a third story about Luther Billis, a womanizing sailor.

Billis was played in the London West End from 1951 to 1953 and in the 1958 film by Ray Walston. Walston’s performance is iconic. As I’ve indicated, other actors have adequately performed as Nellie and de Becque besides Martin and Pinza, but nobody has ever reached the pinnacle that Walston achieved as Billis. So, as it is with each performance of South Pacific, it was hard for me to enjoy Matthew Saldivar as Billis. Basically, Saldivar just says the lines and doesn’t add much. Nevertheless, he does lead the men’s chorus in a rollicking rendition of There is Nothing Like a Dame.

Along the same lines as my criticism of Saldivar's performance, there is a terrific line in the play after Lt. Cable (Anderson Davis) accuses de Becque of being “just an old man in love with a young girl.” Capt. Brackett (Gerry Becker), takes umbrage, saying that he’s 50 and he doesn’t consider himself “through.” In the movie Russ Brown as Bracket elongates the word “thrrrroooouuugh,” making a highly comedic point. Walston, too, spoke in a way that rolled words that made his performance unique. There’s no reason why subsequent people playing these roles don’t adopt the same timing in their way of speaking. When they generally don’t, and they don’t here, the play loses something special.

One of the charms of South Pacific is its supporting roles. Anderson Davis is very good as the young lover, Lt. Cable, especially when he sings the song My Girl Back Home, which was in the original score but was cut before the first Broadway production. It has been re-instated for this revival. Equally charming is the Tonkinese girl, Liat, with whom Lt. Cable is smitten, played by Sumie Maeda.

Whoever plays Bloody Mary, Liat’s mother, has huge shoes to fill, those of Juanita Hall, who dominated the role in both the play and the movie. But Keala Settle is up to the task with a strong voice. Her rendition of Happy Talk is fetching and captures the unique melody beautifully.

For anyone who likes Broadway musicals, this version of South Pacific is exceptionally rewarding.