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April 4, 2008

TT: The importance of not being earnest

Today's Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted to new revivals of two of the biggest stage hits of the Forties, Lincoln Center Theater's South Pacific and Trinity Repertory Company's Blithe Spirit, which opened last night in Providence, Rhode Island. Here's an excerpt.

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562620.jpg"South Pacific" goes dead in the water every time the characters stop singing and start talking, which is way too often. The book, adapted by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan from James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific," is a wartime drama built around a May-September romance between Nellie Forbush (Ms. O'Hara), a cheery Navy nurse, and Emile de Becque (Paulo Szot), a super-suave French plantation owner who fled to a Polynesian island after killing a man, took up with a now-deceased native woman and sired an adorable pair of children. Their skins, alas, are too brown to suit the Arkansas-born Nellie, and thereby hangs the tale of "South Pacific." Will true love purge our poor benighted heroine of her racism? Will her middle-aged suitor be killed in a daredevil mission behind Japanese lines? Would that one could care, but Hammerstein preaches his sermon with head-thumping triteness: You've got to be taught before it's too late/Before you are six or seven or eight/To hate all the people your relatives hate. Stir in a megadose of beat-the-Japs period fervor, and you get a show so reeking of uplift that you can all but feel your pulse slowing to a crawl as the second act inches toward its predestined happy ending.

Now comes the good news. The songs sound as great as ever, especially "A Wonderful Guy" (nobody on Broadway wrote better waltzes than Richard Rodgers) and "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame," and Christopher Gattelli has staged them with precision and panache. Michael Yeargan's tropical-island set is downright operatic, while Ted Sperling's 30-piece pit band plays the original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations so handsomely that I'd gladly have paid for a ticket to hear them in concert. Mr. Szot is a bit of a stiff, but Ms. O'Hara more than makes up for his phlegmatic demeanor with her unaffectedly winsome acting, and her singing is the best I've heard on a Broadway stage since Audra McDonald lit a fire under "110 in the Shade."...

BlitheSpirit.JPGNot all the big Broadway hits of the '40s were as boomingly earnest as "South Pacific." Noël Coward's "Blithe Spirit," which opened a month before Pearl Harbor and ran for two years, is a flyweight farce devoid of deeper meaning, and Trinity Repertory Company's stylish revival leaves no doubt that Coward's very, very British brand of socially insignificant comedy is as enduringly fresh as the book of "South Pacific" is hopelessly dated.

Coward's best plays virtually play themselves, provided that the director and actors take care to keep things simple. "Blithe Spirit" is no exception, and Curt Columbus, Trinity Rep's artistic director, has put together a cast of enviably skilled farceurs, all but one of them drawn from the company's own resident ensemble, who get their laughs with unerring economy....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted April 4, 2008 12:00 AM

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