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Nostalgia Is What It Used to Be

On a newly experimental Broadway, the naïvely optimistic South Pacific harks back to a different age.

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Kelli O’Hara’s pure voice, easy charm, and golden good looks are so rare a combination they’re almost scary. Maybe this explains what’s happened to her co-stars lately. In The Pajama Game, Harry Connick Jr., someone not heretofore known for concrete limbs, performed opposite her in a state of almost total petrifaction. (Left alone with a piano for “Hernando’s Hideaway,” however, he turned into Gene Kelly.) Now, in South Pacific, O’Hara lends her luminosity to America’s sunniest racist, Nellie Forbush. In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s World War II drama, she falls in love with Emile de Becque, the French plantation owner with the inconveniently nonwhite babies. Though Emile is the worldly counterpart to down-home, Little Rock–born Nellie, the Brazilian opera singer Paulo Szot doesn’t offer much in the way of swooning charisma, playing stiffly even when lured into some derring-do against the Japanese. He sings beautifully, all right, but in terms of that other famous forties story about a fraught romance in an exotic war zone, he seems too much Victor Laszlo, not enough Rick Blaine.

Not detecting much chemistry between O’Hara and Szot is, I recognize, a minority view: If you missed the early notices, South Pacific led many of my colleagues to tear their shirts off and dance around. There’s a lot to admire in Bartlett Sher’s revival, if not as much as the hosannas might lead you to believe. As with The Light in the Piazza three years ago, Sher has tamed the vast and famously unmanageable Vivian Beaumont stage. He makes it feel like a reborn Hippodrome, a holdout of unapologetic spectacle in a world of chamber musicals. With a fighter jet parked at stage right and a mound of sand running along the back wall—eight or ten blocks from the orchestra seats—Michael Yeargan’s scenery is how the Pacific front might have looked if you saw it through really good binoculars from Hawaii. The battalion of singers, the Seabee costumes, the hints of period slang in Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan’s libretto: It all immerses you in the forties, even though little in Richard Rodgers’s lushly orchestral score admits its origins in the high swing era.

But period flavor cuts both ways. Despite the best efforts of Danny Burstein, who got dependable laughs in The Drowsy Chaperone, the antics of fast-talking operator Luther Billis aren’t very funny. And despite O’Hara’s best efforts, the show’s vaunted wrestling match with bigotry doesn’t resonate either. There’s no denying the show’s boldness for 1949, the new seriousness it brought to musical drama on Broadway. Alas, a pioneer spirit doesn’t make the show complex or challenging enough to keep up with the racial conversation we’re having today. If it’s relevant now, it’s largely through letting us see how far our cultural depictions of American race relations have come.

A fluke of timing only complicates matters for this revival. Turning up, as it does, a week after the return of Gypsy—which also drew the kind of breathless praise that makes me think a case of masterpiece fever must be going around—the wholesome optimism of Rodgers and Hammerstein can induce whiplash. Just ten years separate the opening nights of those two classics (1949 and 1959), but the earlier South Pacific seems like a product of a different civilization. The savage ironies of Arthur Laurents’s book and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics in Gypsy capture a society turning away from the good war and sinking into the sixties. It’s not just tone, either: Sondheim famously learned his trade as a lyricist from his mentor Hammerstein. Watching their shows back-to-back, you hear how the incisive intelligence of the pupil was already allowing him to surpass the master.

Dramatic-historical insights aside, the exuberant welcome extended to both these shows also owes something to the Broadway they inhabit. The place has gone—and is going—through an exciting and discombobulating couple of years. The art form seems like it’s being remade before our eyes, as a Latino kid raps, an African-American blasts away on his electric guitar, and sexy naked teens behave inappropriately, right there in theater’s sanctum sanctorum. Next to those ragged adventures in new sound, of course the polished vocabulary and nostalgic charm of two Golden Age classics will be greeted with over-the-top affection—by those who are into that sort of thing, anyway.

Right from the start, The Little Flower of East Orange looks like trouble. Mainly it’s the good kind of trouble—the kind that, at this point, can almost be tagged Stephen Adly Guirgis trouble, in honor of its current and unmatched champion. As in his lyrically freewheeling plays like Our Lady of 121st Street and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, the playwright’s dialogue is so coiled, his stories so unpredictable, his concerns so far-ranging, that you get a delightful feeling of apprehension: You have no clue who’s going to say what next.

There’s also, alas, the bad kind of trouble—the lack of focus that feels like a Guirgis trademark. Here, a recovering addict (gruffly charismatic Michael Shannon) tells us a story about his ailing mother (Ellen Burstyn) that features some of the most captivating speeches in town: from the sublime (an anguished believer’s speech about grace and redemption) to the ridiculous (a revered figure of American politics—I’ll leave you to guess which one—being dismissed as a “philandering blowhard twerp”). At one moment, Guirgis gets huge laughs when a hospital attendant, played by David Zayas, toys with a slow-witted visitor, catching the word-music brilliantly; later, the gentle Burstyn turns fierce as she delivers a powerful aria in defense of all that a proud woman has seen and done in her long life. Between those virtuosic high points, though, run long stretches of banality, of “Why is my whole family a fuckin’ disaster?” and “You hurt me so much, Mommy.”

This is the fifth time that a Guirgis premiere has been directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and at least the third time I’ve been disappointed by the result. The acting here is uneven, the scenery frequently confused. Guirgis’s raw talent—his ability to flat-out write—remains as luminous as ever, but the plays aren’t getting any closer to matching their best moments. Will it take some other director to draw out of Guirgis the great play I think he’s capable of writing? No one can say, of course. On the bright side, until the answer is clear, I’m content to keep following Guirgis wherever his wayward talent leads him. It’s a queasy consolation, but true: His wobbly stuff is more compelling than most other people’s best.

South Pacific
Music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein.
The Vivian Beaumont Theater.

The Little Flower of East Orange
By Stephen Adly Guirgis. The Public Theater. Through May 4.

E-mail: theatercritic@newyorkmag.com.


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