David Pittsinger and Carmen Cusack may not be household names in the annals of theater, past or present. For sure, they can’t be called theater legends, even in the age of instant hyperbole. But maybe they should be, oughta be, and just maybe will be.
Pittsinger, balding of dome and bold of voice, and Cusack, willowy in vintage bathing suit and military uniform and with a rich, rangy and emotionally supple voice, are bowling audiences over in the touring production of the 2008 Lincoln Center revival of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.
Pittsinger and Cusack are battling pedigree and history here—not only the originals from the Tony Award winning revival Paulo Szot and Kelli O’Hara, but also the stars of the original 1949 Broadway blockbuster, Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin, not to mention a big-screen version featuring major movie stars Rossano Brazzi and Mitzie Gaynor in 1958. If Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin were legends, Pittsinger and Cusack are in the running based on doing the same thing Pinza and Martin did, only doing it—oh, heresy—probably better.
Pittsinger and Cusack, as the French planter Emile de Becque and the American nurse Nellie Forbush engaged in a difficult, joyous and passionate romance, form the solid, believable and completely engaging core of a much beloved, iconic American musical.
The romance of de Becque, a French exile with two Polynesian children, and Forbush, a young but not necessarily naïve woman from Little Rock, Arkansas, mirrors the play’s World War II setting on a Pacific islands, and the rest of the protagonists. The Frenchman, older, more experienced in the ways of the world and love, and the energetic, eager-for-experience nurse reflect what’s happening elsewhere on the island, the American troops itching for action in a great world conflict and dealing with the mysterious islanders, chief among them the boisterous, canny Bloody Mary.
We’re seeing America at a crossroads moment, ready to explode onto the world stage without knowing the world well, bringing our brash energy and old prejudices into the rest of the world. Those are all critical elements in the romance of Emile and Nellie. These two—at least as personified in words, attitude and song by Pittsinger and Forbush—are not just flirting, this isn’t a coy dance, but the beginning of a life-changing, earth-shaking love affair, deep, and passionate down to the toe, head and heart fully engaged.
During the course of a heated-up courtship, everything the two do together through songs—“Some Enchanted Evening”, “I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy” “A Cockeyed Optimist” “Some Enchanted Evening”, “Wonderful Guy”, “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair”—achingly familiar, are also back-and-forth steps toward fulfillment, they’re the classic yes-and-no waltz of love, not yet-now moments. But faced with the Frenchman’s bi-racial children, Nellie falters, having to confront her native southern prejudice, and finds herself seemingly unable to do get past it.
Pittsinger, an opera veteran, has tremendous stage presence; he’s deceptively disarming physically, and emotionally powerful vocally, and convincing as a man who is not afraid to appear ridiculous. Cusack, slight of build, kinetically energetic, with a pitch-perfect Southern accent that finds its way into her singing, makes herself appealing and attractive to the audience, physically, and in a charming, no nonsense manner. She lets you see why the sophisticated Frenchman would be so smitten with her, and why his anguish in “This Nearly Was Mine” is so heart-breaking.
Their romance—and its difficulties with American-bred racial issues—is mirrored in the tragic romance between the feverish Lieutenant Joseph Cable and Liat, Bloody Mary’s daughter, in which the ill-fated Cable knows he can never bring the girl home to his conservative Philly family. Bitterly, he sings the “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”, an anti-bigotry lamentation. Still, sitting in the audience, it’s hard not to think that the fact that Liat is woefully underage might also be a significant problem with the romance.
There are other impressive performances here—Jodi Kimura makes for a dangerous, challenging and cynical Bloody Mary, more than a match for Luther Billis, the American solider-as-commercial-hustler on the island, played with comic force by Timothy Gulan. Anderson Davis is almost feverish as the Marine pilot who falls for Bloody Mary’s daughter in the hypnotic setting of Bali Ha’i.
Director Bartlett Sher manages to sweep through the more difficult, exposition and narrative heavy second act, the highlights of which are the holiday troop show led by Nellie with “Honey Bun”, and de Beque’s soaring lament at losing Nellie.
South Pacific is known for its huge box office success, one of many for the Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership, for its enduring songs and music, and for its powerfully honest portrait of America embarking on the world stage, baggage and all.
As for Nellie and Emile: they’re real for the duration, thanks to Cusack and Pittsinger. One Enchanted Evening, indeed.
Note: South Pacific’s presence on the Opera House stage is a blissful reminder that Washington is enjoying an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Rodgers and Hammerstein and musicals in general. Molly Smith’s smash hit revival of “Oklahoma!”, now officially sold out at Arena Stage, Cinderella at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia make, with South Pacific, a great showcase of the R&H genius. And we’ve also got Leonard Bernstein’s (and Mary Zimmerman’s) Candide at Sidney Harman Hall and the well-received production of Annie at Olney Theatre, not to mention the resurrection of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, just opened at Signature Theater.