Through Sunday, April 11. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. $18-$57. Presented by Broadway Across America-Atlanta. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 1-800-982-2787, www.ticketmaster.com.
By Wendell Brock
Emile de Becque pours Nellie Forbush a snifter of cognac, swirls it around and makes love to her with his eyes. Time stops. But the music doesn’t.
Moments like this are rare in theater. And in all my years of covering the craft, I’ve never seen an image where the score, throbbing and eager, is so gloriously in touch with the heartstrings of the characters.
For most of the night, it’s this kind of magic that sweeps over director Bartlett Sher’s impeccable Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific, ” which won seven 2008 Tony Awards and plays the Fox Theatre through Sunday.
Luminous as the island sunset that flickers behind the shutters of Michael Yeargan’s set, dark and stormy as the passion that Lt. Joseph Cable feels for the exotic Liat on the island of Bali Ha’i, the show flickers between the ecstasy and anxiety of love as naturally as palms swaying in the breeze.
Based on James Michener’s tales (which won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for fiction), first produced in the aftermath of World War II, and boldly wearing its message of racial tolerance on both sleeves with its pair of cross-cultural love stories, “South Pacific” has been dissed as dated and overbearing.
Nellie (Carmen Cusack), you see, can’t abide the dark skin of Emile’s children from a previous marriage; and the toothsome Bloody Mary (Keala Settle) wants to wed her daughter to a Caucasian lieutenant in hopes of a better life. Now let’s be candid: Do such errors and dreams of human nature ever subside?
True, Cable’s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” does seem to come out of nowhere and feels a tad preachy. But it’s hard to quibble with a show that scales to such soaring heights and boasts such stellar performers as Rod Gilfry’s Emile, Anderson Davis’ Cable and Cusack’s Nellie.
OK, so Cusack’s Arkansas twang is slower than sorghum syrup. But her cockeyed optimist has the personality to light up the Fourth of July, and she wins points for transforming herself from Elphaba (in the “Wicked” tour that played Atlanta in 2008) into this pertly permed blonde.
Possessed of a majestic baritone and looking as mighty as a sequoia, Gilfry is exquisite. The chiseled Davis is reminiscent of the scorching Pablo Schreiber (whom Sher used in Broadway’s “Awake and Sing!”): a combination of swagger and tenderness. (He sings like an angel, too.) Settle massages Bloody Mary’s cartoonish shape into a figure of depth and poignance, and Sumie Maeda’s Liat is a lovely, delicate flower.
With a company of 34, it’s impossible to mention all the standouts, but the guys who play the lusty, wise-cracking sailors and the women who portray the pinup-worthy ensigns are a joy to watch. Catherine Zuber’s delightful costumes and Donald Holder’s sumptuous lighting don’t hurt, either. If I haven’t made it clear already, this “South Pacific” is about as sexy as they come. And just as true to the mysteries of the human heart.