Review: South Pacific

In Bart Sher’s adaptation, "Happy Talk" is racier than you ever imagined.

By Laura Dannen February 1, 2010


In the 1958 film version of South Pacific, what you see is what you get. Polynesian woman Bloody Mary is all smiles as she sings “Happy Talk,” gently urging a young Lieutenant Cable to bed and wed her daughter Liat. The lieutenant makes googly eyes at Liat while Liat does those chirpy “talky talk” hand gestures. They’re clearly in love, and the Mama Hen couldn’t be prouder.

But look closer, says stage director Bart Sher, whose adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical opened at 5th Avenue Theatre last night. In the original text based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize–winning short stories, you find a darker truth behind the glossy “guy loves girl” storyline. “First of all, [Bloody Mary’s] not even Polynesian—she’s from Vietnam, and an imported worker,” Sher told us in a recent interview. “And ‘Happy Talk’ was about a woman trying to sell her daughter to somebody to get her out of poverty. When you played it for what it was, it changed how you heard the song.”

Indeed it does. In the touring production of Sher’s hit Broadway revival, “Happy Talk” turns desperate as Bloody Mary (Keala Settle), a pitbull in black lipstick, tries to make a sale. It’s a subtle change—one of several that gives some much-needed depth to the 1949 script. Sher’s South Pacific isn’t just about dames; it’s also “about race, and a world of people going through enormous changes, and about the risk and anxiety of war,” he said. Through restored dialogue (cut from the original play), we learn more about Nellie Forbush—a wide-eyed nurse from Arkansas who claims she’s “born with” her prejudices—and Lieutenant Cable, a preppy Princeton grad who worries what the gang at home would think of his “native” girl.

But fear not, fans of enchanted evenings. This three-hour version still has the memorable score, the original orchestrations, sets and backdrops straight from Lincoln Center, and a Nellie (Carmen Cusack) with a Wicked pedigree, beautiful voice and plenty of cock-eyed optimism. Remember: Sher is, and always will be, an entertainer. This is the guy whose first play as artistic director of Intiman Theatre—Shakespeare’s Cymbeline —had singing cowboys. Ten years later, there are jiving GIs…but that’s only the beginning.

South Pacific runs through February 21 at 5th Avenue Theatre.

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