Review: ‘South Pacific’ at Aspen Music Festival |

Review: ‘South Pacific’ at Aspen Music Festival

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

A new collaboration between the Aspen Music Festival, the one with the big tent for (mostly) classical music, and Theatre Aspen, whose little tent next to the John Denver Sanctuary puts on plays and musicals, paid big dividends Monday in Benedict Music Tent.

The music festival supplied the 2,000-seat tent, chorus and the orchestra, led by Broadway veteran Andy Einhorn, and a packed audience got to relish a vivid, idiomatic, heartfelt performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” in concert. A cast of Broadway-quality singer-actors (and one noted operatic baritone) did it full justice.

The musical, based on James Michener’s novel “Tales of the South Pacific,” debuted in 1949. Set on a remote island base during World War II, it centers on a U.S. Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, who falls in love with a self-made plantation owner, a widowed Frenchman whose two mixed-race children challenge her racial intolerance.

Concerts celebrating great Broadway scores have become a staple of symphony orchestras in recent years, from New York to San Francisco. With minimal sets, costumes and props, the spotlight shines on the music. And it’s not just scores by classically trained composers like Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim that benefit from an orchestra expanded beyond the limits of a Broadway pit.

Played here by 50 able musicians, Robert Russell Bennett’s brilliant orchestrations, shaped by Einhorn’s sensitive conducting, laid the foundation for a musical feast. Richard Rodgers’ tunes and evocative underscoring of dramatic scenes framed a full evening of terrific singing and acting.

With her slight frame, Broadway star Christy Altomare — fresh off a two-year run in the title role of “Anastasia” — made a darling spitfire of Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse. To her steely soprano and dancing talent she added the acting chops to make Nellie into a flesh-and-blood character. She played beautifully against Nathan Gunn as Emile de Becque, the plantation owner, a role written for opera star Ezio Pinza and traditionally played by an operatic bass-baritone. Gunn executed a respectable French accent and lent gravitas to the character, much older than Nellie.

Their first scene together sparked chemistry with the duet “Twin Soliloquies,” which made the surrounding solo songs — Altomore’s “A Cockeyed Optimist” and Gunn’s “Some Enchanted Evening” — all the more potent.

Altomare’s “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy” combined musical clarity with big personality. Gunn’s “This Nearly Was Mine” in Act 2, when he laments losing Nellie to her prejudice, was another highlight.

The rest of the cast added plenty of juice. As Lt. Cable, the Marine intelligence officer trying to recruit Emile for a dangerous operation, Ryan McCartan deployed a sleek lyric tenor for a charming “Younger Than Springtime” when introduced to a young island girl, and provided the necessary anger and regret in the show’s central morality piece, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

As Bloody Mary, the island’s saucy entrepreneur, a diminutive Ann Harada delivered the signature tune “Bali Hai” with appropriate flair, and, in “Happy Talk,” channeled a persuasive mom trying to get Cable to marry her daughter. Brian Ray Norris got the entrepreneurial seabee Luther Billis to a “T” and drew laughs in a coconut bra as Nellie’s foil in “Honey Bun,” which Altomore turned into a miniature tour-de-force.

Members of the Aspen Opera Center, especially the men, made a big impression as a flock of seabees in “Bloody Mary” and “There Is Nothing Like a Dame.” The women, as the nurses, created notable individual personalities in supporting Altomore in her big ensemble numbers.

Lonny Price cannily directed playwright David Ives cogent concert adaptation of the original Broadway book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan. But the glue that held it all together musically was the orchestra, led by Einhorn, and the two leads, attractive in every way. Who needs sets when the musical values come with such intensity and savvy?

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 24 years. His regular reviews appear Tuesdays and Saturdays in The Aspen Times.