NEW YORK—The harmonic Seabees warbling "There is Nothing Like a Dame" at the start of Bart Sher's Lincoln Center revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" include whites and African-Americans. Nothing unusual there. It took decades, but Broadway has finally taught audiences how to see through and past the color of a chorus member's skin.
But the prophetic "South Pacific," which contains the incomparable 100-second denouncement of prejudice known as "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught," is a romantic musical with racism as both uber-text and villain. And as sweet Nellie Forbush and handsome Lt. Joseph Cable stare at their respective lovers and confront the poison of their own upbringings, you realize that Sher wasn't casting without regard to color but as a way of explicating the great American problem of the 20th Century.Imperceptibly at first, those Seabees of color form a distinct group toward the rear of the Lincoln Center's cavernously deep stage. They stand, silently, staring at the disappointing doings of the pale principals. And thus the amazing 1949 guts -- as well as the iconic melodies -- of "South Pacific" are revealed anew.
That jaw-dropping moment is one of many in Sher's operatic production, by far the best of a trio of impressive Broadway revivals this season ("Gypsy" and "Sunday in the Park With George" are the others). This "South Pacific" will certainly go down as one of the great revisionist revivals of the modern era, along with Nicholas Hytner's "Carousel" and Trevor Nunn's "Oklahoma," both of which made those titles more fanciful and overtly theatrical. Instead, Sher goes for heightened reality with devastating effect. His work has become by far Broadway's hottest ticket.
Sher has given the work incomparable visual sweep. Although Michael Yeargan's setting is traditional in milieu -- the gorgeous backdrop is painted (on both sides) by hand, rather than digitized -- the stage is so large that you can see the intimate show of personal relationships in the foreground, even as a separate drama takes place on the beach to the rear and in Bali Hai at the horizon.
This isn't a show dependent on star performances, but Kelli O'Hara's disarmingly simple take on Ensign Forbush is vocally exquisite and intensely moving in its honesty. As her love interest Emile, the Brazilian opera singer Paulo Szot sounds extraordinary and comes with a very viable emotional intensity. And Danny Burstein pops out Luther Billis as you've never seen him before.
The orchestra has 30 players, as when this show opened on Broadway in 1949. When you enter the theater, the pit at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre is covered by a huge platform shaped like the edge of the shore. In the middle of one of the greatest overtures ever composed, the platform rolls back like a wave, revealing the flamboyant grandiosity of the American art of musical theater and, shortly afterward, the troubled social shore on which the art had to be built.
And speaking of trouble ...
The titles of the musical numbers alone reveal that "Cry-Baby," the new Broadway musical version of the 1990 John Waters film, is a very different beast from "Hairspray." Instead of the sweetly aspirational "Good Morning Baltimore," this time the Waters-inspired curtain rises on "The Anti-Polio Picnic" and proceeds to "I'm Infected," "Screw Loose" and "Girl, Can I Kiss You with Tongue?"
In short, the newer show, written by the "Hairspray" team of Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, goes for a trashier gestalt than its megahit predecessor.
One could make a decent case that its seedier milieu is more true to the aesthetic of its founding father. "Cry-Baby," wherein the freaks and geeks of 1950s Maryland battle for cultural supremacy, produces a harsh look and sound. David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger's score relies more on percussive rhythm than soaring melody. Scott Pask's set strives self-consciously for the look of a low-budget B movie. Rob Ashford's typically double-time choreography is never fully allowed to escape from the show's intentional visual chaos.
But in the Waters universe, it's a very fine line from the camp to the crass and from shock to schlock. And as Mel Brooks found out with "Young Frankenstein," the Broadway musical form inherently resists comic parodies without an obviously theatrical reason to drive their existence.
As it went with the Brooks monster last fall, so it goes here. Albeit with some decent laughs, a certain sense of fun and a few redeeming scenes and performances, "Cry-Baby" comes off mostly as a shrill, crude, clattering show without the leavening good-heartedness and love of the underdog that made "Hairspray" such a knockout.
The main problem is not with the book -- Waters' pro-outsider narrative capers all seem to work -- but the score. Especially in Act 1, the music lacks variety. And like Mark Brokaw's insufficiently human production, the numbers also lack optimism, spirit and truth.
The performances are mixed. Neither James Snyder, the invulnerable newcomer who plays the title role, nor Elizabeth Stanley, who plays the show's typically curious good girl, emit sufficient charisma or sexuality to hold down the leads.
The character players -- especially the great Harriet Harris and Chester Gregory II, formerly of Chicago's Black Ensemble Theatre -- do much better. Harris emits the best zingers. And Gregory, who plays the Baby's music-loving sidekick, has real spark, although the material rarely lets him catch fire.
Similarly, the supporting cast of Waters freaks is faithfully represented, from Carly Jibson's terrific, all-pregnant, all-smoking creation to Tory Ross' delicious Hatchet Face Mona. And as Lenora, the obsessive wacko in love with Cry-Baby, Alli Mauzey brings real guts, if not profound comedic accomplishment.
At Tuesday night's press performance, the biggest laughs were flowing from the rear and rafters of the house, suggesting some loyal Waters fans appreciate the effort to be truer to the original warp of their man. But it's hard to see this show sending many people out on a high, or making them believe in the latent power of their own freakishness.
'A Catered Affair'
The new Broadway musical "A Catered Affair" is another cinematic adaptation set in the 1950s, but one in which everyone is too terminally depressed to cry.
Based on the 1956 Richard Brooks movie "The Catered Affair" (penned by the formidable duo of Gore Vidal and Paddy Chayefsky), this new musical with book by Harvey Fierstein and John Bucchino centers on two working-class families in the Bronx and one main dilemma: Does a decent wedding require a catered affair? Even if it means flushing your life savings down the drain "to feed a bunch of strangers"?
Regardless of era or bank balance, it's a decent question. And this production by John Doyle ("Sweeney Todd") commits entirely to the monochromatic depiction of the struggles of postwar urban life. The central family -- Tom Wopat's cabdriver, Faith Prince's stolid spouse, Fierstein's restless gay uncle, Leslie Kritzer's independent-minded bride -- can never quite lose themselves from struggling over money and one another to celebrate one of life's great moments. Even the normally exuberant Fierstein is restrained by his painful milieu.
Doyle is a director with great compassion for the quotidian struggles of life, and there are few false notes in a piece that has sharply divided New York critics. Although certainly disinclined toward any kind of flourish, Bucchino's score is nonetheless melodic and humane. And the show is very moving at times. You start pondering -- in timely fashion -- the impossibility of lives haunted by financial crisis. You muse on how familial dysfunction exudes the most unctuous kind of human poison. And Prince, a formidable Broadway actress, turns in a self-effacing performance of great power.
But there are holes in the narrative and what feels like missing scenes -- the story takes a great leap in the second act, leaving you wondering what part of the big decision you missed. And you crave a few notes of joy.
Transient joy, sure. But some indication of how the spirit of youth and union offers at least the chance of transcendence, just as it does in "South Pacific."