South Pacific at the Guthrie Theater

The ensemble in South Pacific. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The ensemble in South Pacific. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

First, allow me to express some negativity: why does the Guthrie Theater so often insist on bringing in New Yorkers to play parts that should, by rights, go to equally talented (and often even more gifted) Minnesotans? In the case of South Pacific (at the Guthrie through Aug 28), many of these Minnesota performers are already in the cast, playing meaninglessly small roles.

These brassy Broadway types, IMO, skew the play: Erin Mackey‘s brittle and shallow Nellie Forbush was a major disappointment and as Emile de Becque Edward Staudenmayer‘s Gallic basso profundo would make Rosanno Brazzi look like he’s from Flatbush. Whenever he sang I wondered: is he in the right play? Christine Toy Johnson is pretty good, if repetitive, as Bloody Mary. The message seems to be: we don’t trust you locals to do this right.

Of the New York imports, only CJ Eldred serves the story well. Sensitive and passionate, quiet and lean, with outstanding musical chops, I can’t think of a local actor who would do a better job as the good Lt. Cable.

So: if you thought the new Joseph Haj (Haj also directs this show) regime would pursue different casting policies, you thought wrong.

There. Got that off my chest. Thanks for putting up with me. Now then. To get on with it:

This is a good show! Holy moley! Can you go wrong with Rodgers and Hammerstein? No! You should see it!

South Pacific is, arguably, the pinnacle of R&H’s storied career, a career that includes Carousel, The King And I, Oklahoma!, The Sound Of Music. Every song is a major masterpiece: “Dites-Moi,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “We Ain’t Got Dames,” “I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” “Bal’i Hai,” “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” Unless you’ve spent the last 50 years on the planet Mizar 5 you are familiar with these songs.

The cast, though their acting substance may occasionally be lacking, to a person have massive musical chops and they attack these songs with gusto and verve and wildly contagious energy. The story, of Americans chasing the Japanese up the chain of islands, the love affair between Forbush and de Becque, well, that may be a tad superficial, but who cares. The songs are terrific and these actors really do them. Bravos all around.

South Pacific deals directly with racism, a subject that, in 1949 when the show premiered, was difficult and fraught. It is much less so now. In fact, when Cable says to Mary, “I can’t marry her,” my first thought was, “He’s already married.” It didn’t even occur to me that the reason Cable couldn’t marry Liat is that Liat is the wrong color. (It finally dawned on me. “Oh. Right.”) Still, that SP addresses the issue of racial prejudice so forthrightly adds punch and substance to the story and gives it contemporary relevance.

South Pacific has a large cast. Thus I will be unable to wax enthusiastic about everyone. Still I must give major kudoes to Steve Hendrickson who plays the gruff and relentlessly nasty C.O. The moment when he stands to rip Cable another you-know-what for calling a 48 yo “old” is priceless. And Jimmy Kieffer as Luther Billis is a hoot and a half (and his cocoanut tits are perfect — kudoes also to costumist Jennifer Caprio).

South Pacific is a major American masterpiece, and here’s your chance to see it at the (relatively) intimate Guthrie Theater. Haj’s production is first rate. Don’t pass it up.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book, about the magic of bedtime stories, Tell Me A Story In The Dark, has recently been published. Please visit John’s informational website.

5 comments for “South Pacific at the Guthrie Theater

  1. Norma Cox
    August 12, 2016 at 10:07 am

    I’ve seen this production twice, primarily to experience Edward Staudenmayer’s incredible voice! I could feel the electricity and anticipation in the audience whenever he was on stage. What a wonderful treat. The entire production was wonderful …..much better than last year’s Music Man.

  2. Mary Ann Hecht
    July 15, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    Rossano Brazzi did not sing in the movie South Pacific – Giorgio Tozzi was dubbed in. Thought that fact should be provided to correct error made in second paragraph of review. MAH

  3. Mary Ann Hecht
    July 15, 2016 at 5:01 pm

    Rossano Brazzi did not sing in the movie South Pacific – Giorgio Tozzi was dubbed in. Thought that fact should be provided to correct error made in first paragraph of review. MAH

  4. Steven LaVigne
    July 13, 2016 at 8:27 pm

    I can’t sit through SP again. I saw a glorious production by a community theater when I was in high school and a dreadful production when I was in college. I rather liked the TV version with Glenn Close, as well as the Carnegie Hall concert version with Reba McIntyre as Nellie and Brian Stokes Mitchell as Emile. The Live from Lincoln Center production was superb, so I’ll pass on the Guthrie production. I walked out of their My Fair Lady and don’t want to risk it!

  5. June 29, 2016 at 3:08 am

    I completely disagree with this reviewer. Erin Mackey was an amazing Nellie Forbush, full of energy and evolving in her world view. We watch her transition from the Arkansas native with many lifelong erroneous beliefs to a self-actualized woman realizing she has lived her life with many unexamined predjudices. Upon that recognition she begins to change as her love for Emile DeBecque (Edward Staudenmayers) deepens and the fact that he had children with a Polynesian woman becomes more than acceptable as she embraces the truth that no race or color of people is superior to another. Her love for Emile and the children deepens and this is seen in her entire performance. Shallow is not a word to describe her performance. Her journey is transcendent, honest and authentic. The score is wonderful, song and dance in abundance and many comic moments make this show extremely enjoyable. However, facing truth about the society in which these characters inhabit is uncomfortable, painful and feels shameful for both the characters and the audience. Read TwinCities.com review for the truth regarding this show. It is one of Hammerstein’s best. You won’t be disappointed!

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