Monday, May 26, 2008

Kelli and Nellie

By Tony Buchsbaum

For anyone who's into Broadway musicals, The Light in the Piazza, which debuted two years ago at Lincoln Center, was and remains a revelation. It brought into the limelight the director Barlett Sher and the ingenue Kelli O'Hara, among other national treasures. But those two, in particular, have return this season in one of most highly-anticipated shows in recent memory, the first-ever revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. Director and lead actress are united here again, with results that are equally astounding and unforgettable.

The role of Nellie Forbush is one of those indelible roles made more so by the indelible songs she sings (as well as those sung all around her, throughout the show). No one reading this needs a South Pacific lesson, but it might do to say that this show hasn't seen a Broadway staging since the original, starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, closed in 1954.

The show is a bracing denunciation of racism made sweeter--if not bittersweeter--by a heart-melting love story between a nurse and a French planter on an island in the South Pacific, during World War II. Intertwined in their story is that of Cable, a lieutenant who falls for a Polynesian girl who lives on nearby Bali Ha'i, another island. Neither Nellie nor Cable saw their lives unfolding as they do, and the show is essentially an exploration of how their realities diverge from their expectations. It is woven together with a score that contains some of the Broadway's greatest hits, each one a signature song: "Dites-Moi," "Cockeyed Optimist," "Some Enchanted Evening, "Bloody Mary," "There is Nothing Like a Dame," "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair," "Bali Ha'i," "Younger Than Springtime," "You've Got to be Carefully Taught."

These alone are reason enough to see this show (or at least buy its CD); the fact that Kelli O'Hara plays Nellie is an added bonus. She is extraordinary in the role and performs the songs as if the lyrics have just occurred to her, not as if they were written 50 years ago. She brings a exuberance to every moment: it's as if no one has felt this way before, no one has voiced these feelings before. Spectacular doesn't even begin to describe it.

Luckily, she is supported by a cast that's up to the task, from Paulo Szot as Emile DeBecque to Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary to Matthew Morrison as Joe Cable. I wish the whole cast could win a Tony.

Now, once you've experienced South Pacific, turn your attention to the other Keli O'Hara, the one with a new CD called "Wonder in the World". Arranged and orchestrated by Harry Connick, Jr. (her co-star in The Pajama Game), this album of quiet songs is the perfect foil to Nellie Forbush. This is Kelli as Kelli, singing her own kind of music. Like her performance as Nellie, Kelli sings these songs as if they've just occurred to her. In addition to her own jazzy version of "Fable," the finale of Light in the Piazza, Kelli tackles "Fire and Rain," "I Have Dreamed" from The King and I, and several original songs. All wonderful--indeed, all wonders, just as the title promises.

Whether she's Nellie or Kelli, Ms. O'Hara is someone to watch--or rather, someone to listen to. You'll find pleasure in every note.

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