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Tony-winning show promises to be among best to hit Spokane

SUNDAY, OCT. 3, 2010

Call it cockeyed optimism, but there are many excellent reasons to believe that the national tour of “South Pacific” – which arrives in Spokane on Wednesday for five performances – will be one of the most memorable shows of the year.

Or maybe in decades.

If that sounds extreme, let’s look at the evidence:

• This is the traveling version of the Lincoln Center revival, which bowled over jaded New York audiences in 2008. It ran for nearly 1,000 performances and won seven Tony Awards.

• The original 1949 “South Pacific” is one of a tiny handful of musicals to earn unanimous raves from all eight top Broadway critics of its era (the others include “The Music Man,” “Guys and Dolls” and “My Fair Lady”). At its debut, the New York Post called it “one of the finest plays in the history of musical theater.”

• This judgment was, if anything, bolstered when the Lincoln Center revival opened 59 years later. Critics responded in a very un-critic-like way. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley was clearly moved.

“I could feel the people around me leaning toward the stage, as if it were a source of warmth on a raw, damp day,” Brantley wrote. “And that warmth wasn’t the synthetic fire of can-do cheer and wholesomeness … It’s the fire of daily life, with all its crosscurrents and ambiguities, underscored and clarified by music.”

• The music in the touring version will be played by a 29-piece pit orchestra, easily two or three times as big as the normal Broadway or touring orchestra.

“You’ll hear the original orchestrations, with the (equivalent of) a full Broadway orchestra from 1949, which is very different from the canned music that you hear today,” said one of the lead performers, David Pittsinger. “… People want to hear a piece the way it was intended.”

• Pittsinger, who played Emile de Becque in the Broadway version, will reprise that role when the tour visits the INB Performing Arts Center.

He also happens to be an international opera star who made headlines earlier this year when he became the first vocalist ever to sing in a Broadway show (this one) and at the Metropolitan Opera (“Hamlet”) on the same day.

• It’s the kind of musical into which an opera star fits quite comfortably.

“This role was written for Ezio Pinza, who sang the same repertoire that I sing and that I aspire to,” said Pittsinger, by phone from his Connecticut home.

• The Washington Post called the Lincoln Center show “the best revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein in a generation.”

This was, in fact, the only Rodgers & Hammerstein-sanctioned revival of “South Pacific” to ever hit Broadway (there have been hundreds of regional, amateur and school revivals).

“I think they were waiting,” said Pittsinger of the Rodgers & Hammerstein heirs. “Sometimes, you can revive a show too soon.

“They had a perfect cast, a perfect director (Bartlett Sher) … a director who was willing to approach the piece in a new, grittier fashion.”

• Even in rehearsals, it was obvious to the cast that they were part of something special. Pittsinger, who shared the lead role with Paulo Szot because of previous operatic obligations, said the feeling grew stronger once the show opened.

“I would wake up in the morning and I couldn’t wait to get to the theater,” he said. “The general response to the show was incredibly emotional.”

• The Lincoln Center revival earned something few Broadway shows can boast of: its own, live PBS broadcast. You may have caught it in August. (Szot, not Pittsinger, played Emile.)

• This national touring show will continue well into 2011, moving to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., among other cities.

The folks at WestCoast Entertainment said they would have loved to have booked it here for more than five performances, but they grabbed what they could get.

• “South Pacific” includes some of the most memorable songs ever written for Broadway. On the day after opening night in 1949, critic Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times singled out one particular song as being destined “to become reasonably immortal.”

That song was “Some Enchanted Evening.”

Atkinson probably regretted only one word: “reasonably.”

• The show includes many other songs that people still know by heart: “Bali Hai,” “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “Younger Than Springtime,” “A Wonderful Guy,” “This is How It Feels” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.”

• Many of these songs are lighthearted, but “South Pacific” is known for its seriousness and moral heft. Its themes include racism, miscegenation and war – not the typical topics of musical comedy.

One 1949 critic predicted that it presaged “a new trend in musicals.” He was right, although it took the rest of the theater world decades to catch up.

• Oh, and “South Pacific” achieved one other thing rare among musicals: It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950.

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