Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Classic Post-War American Musicals: South Pacific and Kiss Me, Kate

Joan Almedilla singing "Bali H'ai" to Cameron Loyal and the sailors in South Pacific.

Of the trio of Rodgers and Hammerstein mega-hits from the 1940s, South Pacific (1949) gets the fewest productions. Even Carousel, with its rigorous vocal demands and its onstage carousel, is revived more often. (Oklahoma! seems to show up somewhere every season.) South Pacific has a big, mostly male cast and the machinations of the plot, adapted from stories in James Michener’s World War II novel Tales of the South Pacific, are complicated, especially in the second act, when the two major male characters, a French planter named Émile de Becque and Navy Lieutenant Joe Cable, are carrying on a covert military operation on one of the smaller islands. But it’s the most interesting of the three shows because of its theme and because the Arksansas-born protagonist, Navy Nurse Nellie Forbush, is the most unusual heroine in any musical of its era. Though R&H wrote two of their most relentlessly upbeat songs for her, “A Cockeyed Optimist” and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, who co-wrote the book, expose the darker side of her character. She falls in love with de Becque but runs away from him when she discovers that he fathered two children with his late Polynesian mistress. Her story is echoed by Cable’s:  he tumbles for a young islander named Liat but realizes that he could never bring a woman of color home to his family in Philadelphia.

The new production of South Pacific at the Goodspeed Opera House doesn’t balance these challenging elements successfully. It’s not very appealing to look at – the staging is static except when the director, Chay Yew, moves the actors around in parallel lines, and the set by veteran Alexander Dodge is surprisingly scrappy. (The choreography by Parker Esse is better, and Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting design is better still.) And though the voices are good, the acting mostly isn’t. Rodgers and Hammerstein strove toward a greater realism in musical theatre, and though the dialogue doesn’t exactly soar, it tries hard to be gritty rather than synthetic. But here the chorus of Seabees is broad and caricatured and the musical performances are big and self-conscious. The exception is Joan Almedilla as Bloody Mary, Liat’s mother: though Almedilla has a beautiful instrument, she sings the lustrous “Bali H’ai” and even the icky “Happy Talk” to privilege acting values over vocal showiness. The night I saw the show the understudies, Hannah Jewel Kohn and Eric Briarley, were covering Nellie and Émile, and both sang well; I don’t know if the usual leads, Danielle Wade and Omar Lopez-Cepero, have been any more successful in bringing this relationship to life. I would have directed Kevin Quillon as Luther Billis, the clownish sailor who turns out to be an unexpectedly hero, to understate a little more, but he’s fun to watch. The big problem is the young couple, Cable (Cameron Loyal) and Liat (Alex Humphreys):  he’s a cardboard cut-out with a nice voice and she doesn’t even begin to suggest a character.

Unhappily, Loyal wouldn’t work in this role even if he were terrific, because he’s a Black man playing a character written as a white man who knows his conservative family won’t accept an Asian daughter-in-law. You can’t apply color-blind casting to a story about racism, for God’s sake. That’s such an obvious mistake that it makes the people who made the casting decision look like they didn’t read the script. Cable has two big numbers, the melodic love ballad “Younger Than Springtime” and “Carefully Taught,” which is all about the way we’re taught to hate “people whose eyes are oddly made / And people whose skin is a different shade.” It’s a terrible song, the preachiest lyric Oscar Hammerstein ever wrote, but it’s central to the idea of South Pacific, and you can’t simply pretend that Cable is singing about white people who hate him because of his color. In the current Broadway transfer of the London revival of Cabaret (which is dreadful in a dozen different ways), Cliff, the protagonist, is being played by a Black actor, just as he was in the West End. But the plot has him being befriended by a Nazi who even employs him to carry secret letters to allies across the border. Are we supposed to forget what Nazis thought about Black men? These ridiculous glitches, premised on the principle that it’s more important to throw an actor of color into a role than to make sense of the plot, signal stupidity, not virtue – and they make the audience feel like we’re supposed to be such idiots we don’t even notice.

Jack Butterworth helms the "Too Darn Hot" number in Kiss Me, Kate. (Photo: Johan Persson)

The original production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate opened on Broadway about three months earlier than South Pacific. An exuberant vaudevillian musical about the Baltimore try-out of a musical of The Taming of the Shrew in which the two stars’ relationship echoes that of Shakespeare’s Petruchio and Katharine (Sam and Bella Spewack authored the book), it’s revived all the time; this is the fourth production I’ve reviewed for Critics at Large, not counting the 1958 TV version that was made available on disc eight years ago. Bartlett Sher’s new mounting, at the Barbican in London, is by far the most enjoyable of them, the most sumptuous and the fleetest. Michael Yeargan has designed a lyrical set (with impressionist sketches for the play-within-the-play sequences) on an ever-moving revolve that allows him and Sher to play some of the ingenious tricks they pulled on the big stage at Lincoln Center in their My Fair Lady in 2018. Both Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Donald Holder’s lighting are typically first-rate. The dance numbers, choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, are most enjoyable, especially the second-act opener, “Too Darn Hot,” with the fabulous Jack Butterworth (as Paul, the stage manager) leading the ensemble. “Too Darn Hot” was written to stop the show, and it does; Van Laast was also generous enough to extend a major role in it to Charlie Stemp, who plays Bill Calhoun, the hoofer with the gambling jones who has been cast as the young swain Lucentio. It shows off his terpsichorean gifts.

To be honest, though, I would have cast three of the four principal characters with different performers. Stephanie J. Block is delectable as Lilli Vanessi, the temperamental leading lady whose unresolved feelings for her ex-husband, Fred Graham, her director and co-star: she has the high-comic/low-comic style, the acting chops and, God knows, the voice. But good as his dancing is, Stemp’s acting is wooden, and Georgina Onuorah is all wrong for Lois Lane/Bianca, who is sleeping with Fred but in love with Bill. Onuorah is a diva playing the ingénue part, and Kiss Me, Kate doesn’t need two divas. Onuorah might be fun singing a song like Katharine’s “I Hate Men” (though probably not as much fun as Block), but she projects too large for “Why Can’t You Behave?” and she runs out of ideas in the middle of “Always True to You in My Fashion,” one of Porter’s trademark list songs, so you get tired of it before it winds up.

And though Adrian Dunbar can certainly act the role of Fred and makes sure all the jokes land, he simply isn’t a musical-theatre performer: when she and the other three promenade onto the stage early in the show to sing “We Open in Venice,” he doesn’t look like he belongs. His singing is mediocre; some musical-comedy male leads don’t demand great singers (Henry Higgins and King Arthur, to pick two obvious ones), but this one was written for the rich baritone Alfred Drake and another wondrously warm baritone, Howard Keel, took it over in the 1953 movie version. Plus at sixty-six Dunbar is too old for the part.  The production tries to compensate by casting Peter Davison, who’s even older, as Harrison Howell, the pompous general to whom Lilli has become engaged, but the results are merely confusing. When Lois recognizes Howell as an old lover and he tries to downplay their fling by reminding her he was a much younger man and it happened during wartime, you think, “Which war?” and then you think, “Wait a minute – how old is Lois?”

As Porter and the Spewacks wrote the show, it begins with the memorable ensemble number “Another Op’nin’, Another Show.” Sher has pushed the song back a few minutes, choosing to begin instead with the dialogue exchange that normally follows it, among all the show-biz characters, in order to build the company spirit from the outset. It’s a clever choice. And like everyone who puts up a new Kiss Me, Kate, he has to contend with the challenges of making the 1948 libretto acceptable to the standards of a contemporary audience. Like Scott Ellis in the 2019 Broadway revival, he doesn’t show us Fred/Petruchio spanking Lilli/Katharine in full of view of the Baltimore opening-night audience. Ellis had the two characters, played by Will Chase and Kelli O’Hara, spank each other, which I thought was a good solution, but then he had the other characters report it rather than offend our disapproving eyes, which was dumb. Sher stops the spanking before it starts, and since she’s been batting him around on stage since discovering the flowers mistakenly delivered from him to her were really meant for Lois, when she threatens to bring him up on charges before Equity, he gets a laugh by protesting that she’s the one who was violent to him. That’s OK but not as good as Sher’s inspiration for “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple.” In The Taming of the Shrew that’s the verse Katharine recites in the final scene to show that she’s happy to be subservient to her new husband – that the shrew has been tamed. In Kiss Me, Kate, Porter sets the verse to music and when Lilli, who has walked out before the finale, changes her mind and returns to perform it, she presents it as a gesture of love. Unlike The Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me, Kate isn’t misogynistic, but alas, a 2024 audience would take the lyric literally. In this version Lilli has already verbalized her objection to the lyric.  So when she starts to sing it, much as she wants to use it to convey her feelings for her ex-husband, she can’t quite get her head around it. But then Fred joins in, so the song becomes a duet about compromise, the heart of any romantic comedy. It’s a very sweet culmination.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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