As the fifth and final musical of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "big five" that Lyric Stage has produced since 2007, South Pacific is a bang-up finale. The 38-piece orchestra, 33-actor cast and luscious technical aspects make this production as intoxicating as a tropical cocktail — and just as heady.
For all its watercolor sunsets and lovestruck songs, the show also has a dark undercurrent of war and racial fear, and Lyric's glorious production balances the beautiful with the ugly.
Based on James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, which set designer Michael Yeargan references with scrims filled with typewritten excerpts, the WWII-based musical is also an excellent example of theater used for social change. Interracial relationships play a starring role, and the media storms currently swirling make this 1949 show feel eerily relevant. The song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," sadly, still applies.
Fresh off her acclaimed star turn in Lady In The Dark, Janelle Lutz radiates youthful energy as naive Ensign Nellie Forbush. Lutz makes the cock-eyed optimist from Little Rock goofier than a typical ingenue, and that's a great choice. Whether she's doing a playful jig while singing about being in love with a wonderful guy, giving her short red locks a bubbly onstage scrub while trying to forget him or hamming it up in drag during the military base's Thanksgiving Follies, Lutz is a joy to watch.
And listen to. Her expressive, crystalline voice soars in some of musical theater's most cherished tunes, along with Christopher Sanders' rumbling baritone as Emile de Becque. Thoughtfully portraying the French planter who has adopted the island lifestyle, Sanders uses his immense physical attributes to make the tender, small moments with Lutz even more special. "Some Enchanted Evening" might be de Becque's calling card, but Sanders' rendition of "This Nearly Was Mine" is a showstopper.
Anthony Fortino, playing young lieutenant Joseph Cable, may still be searching for his acting chops, but in the meantime his rich tenor more than carries the weight. Sonny Franks has a rollicking good time doing anything for a laugh as entrepreneurial Luther Billis, and Sally Soldo — though onstage only briefly during the nearly three-and-a-half-hour musical —is a delight as his native counterpart, Bloody Mary.
Costumes inspired by Catherine Zuber's original Tony-winning designs and dreamy lighting courtesy of Julie N. Simmons make it easy to feel the tropical breezes. Under the baton of music director Jay Dias, Rodgers and Hammerstein's original orchestrations are lush.
Len Pfluger's direction doesn't rush this melodrama, instead letting us linger on the romantic interludes and racially charged confrontations. This is how it feels to experience one of the best from America's musical theater canon done right.
Lyric Stage's South Pacific plays through June 21 at Carpenter Hall in the Irving Arts Center.