La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 19 August 2010

South Pacific a Perfect Summer Tonic

Jason Howard (Emile) and Carmen Cusack (Nellie) in South Pacific (Photo: Kim Ritzenthaler)

Scorching heat and unrelenting humidity, the opening of the CNE, and the struggling Blue Jays - all signs that we are in the dog days of summer. So what better diversion than spending an evening in an air-conditioned theatre, especially when we have a show as entertaining as South Pacific? This touring version of the Lincoln Center production won seven Tony Awards back in 2008. With the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada normally in hiatus in the months of July and August, Dancap Productions is bringing Miss Saigon and South Pacific to the Four Seasons Centre. The Rogers and Hammerstein show made quite a splash on Broadway two years ago, starring bass-baritone Paulo Szot as Emile de Becque. (Opera fans will remember that Szot sang Escamillo in the COC Carmen in 2006) Szot was a big hit in New York, winning a Tony for his efforts. Originally, this touring production was to star another "barihunk" Rodney Gilfry. But he withdrew and we have a most worthy replacement in Welsh Canadian Jason Howard. A well respected, internationally ranked opera singer, Howard < > combines a darkly rich and sonorous bass-baritone with an impressive stage presence. Now that he has finally sung on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre, let's hope the COC will bring him back in an operatic assignment - Wotan, anyone?

Inspired by the Michener's book Tales of the South Pacific, the musical combines exotic locale, romance, inspired melodies, and something unusual at the time - social commentary. Few musicals dare to deal with issues of racism, so South Pacific was ahead of its time. Watching the show through our 21st century lens, the idea of racially mixed romance and marriage seem all so tame, but it was certainly a big deal sixty years ago, especially when the main character, Nellie Forbush, is a naive southern belle. The solo "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" must have made quite a stir in its time. That's well and good, but Rogers and Hammerstein did not lose sight of the fact that the primary role of a musical is to entertain. To that end, they've written a string of inspired numbers that have withstood the test of time - particularly "Some Enchanted Evening", "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right outa My Hair", "Bali Hai" and "Younger Than Springtime". These songs have certainly become lasting hits of the musical stage.

The Lincoln Center production directed by Bartlett Sher is a beautifully constructed and sensitively presented show, with very nice sets, atmospherically lit, and backed by a fine-sounding 25 piece orchestra under the baton of conductor Lawrence Goldberg. Typically, the practice of Broadway is amplification, and this run is no exception. The Four Seasons Centre has such great acoustics that with full amplification, the sound on opening night was likely adjusted so as not to be too "in your face". I am happy to report that the singing was uniformly excellent. Jason Howard, in keeping with a long tradition of casting Emile De Becque with opera singers, is the only true operatic voice in the cast. Howard, with his magnetic stage presence and rock solid bass, gave an entirely winning performance. Opposite him as Nellie was Carmen Cusack, who possesses a sweet and beautiful Broadway voice. Being a native Texan, Cusack's southern drawl was never less than convincing. Anderson Davis was a typically well scrubbed, American boy next door Lt. Joe Cable, and he sang a beautiful "Younger Than Springtime". All supporting roles were well taken, particularly Jodi Kimura as a suitably earthy Bloody Mary and Matthew Saldivar a swaggering Luther Billis. On opening night, it was a very good crowd but not sold out. I think when the public realizes what a good show it is, they will not hesitate to go see it. Performances run until September 5 at the Four Seasons Centre. For more information and tickets, go to

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