South Pacific Still a Classic

Published: August 18th 2010
in Culture » Stage

Carmen Cusack as Ensign Nellie Forbush and the nurses of South Pacific
Pic: Peter Coombs
Jason Howard (Emile de Becque) and Nellie Forbush (Carmen Cusack)
Pic: Kim Ritzenthaler

It’s a little incredible to think that South Pacific came out just four years after World War II ended. The lavish musical, set on a South Pacific island during the war, is a lighthearted romance featuring dancing American sailors, seductive Native women, interracial relationships and a love story between a middle-aged French planter and a young American nurse.


As director Bartlett Sher (who was also responsible for the celebrated Lincoln Centre revival) said in Toronto back in June, imagine if someone just made a romantic musical about the Iraq War.


Nevertheless, the award-winning South Pacific is one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beloved musicals, and you’ll recognize many of its famous tunes, from the cheeky, head-bopping “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” to the lushly romantic “Some Enchanted Evening” and “A Wonderful Guy,” “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” and many more.


In fact, the song and dance are by far the stars of the show, and they give the cornier aspects of the plot a great boost. South Pacific centres on the relationship between Emile de Becque (Jason Howard), a French planter who escaped to the island many years before after killing a troublesome man in his hometown, and the naïve Nellie Forbush (Carmen Cusack), a nurse from small-town Arkansas, whom he falls in love with. The feelings are mutual, but something from his past threatens to ruin their relationship.


Despite looking a little too old for the part (and much too worldly to convincingly play a naïf), Cusack’s natural charisma, sassy delivery and ability to flesh her character into a real, flawed person enable her to rise well above the schmaltz. Howard isn’t quite as expressive, but he has his own strong-and-silent-type appeal and a deep, operatic voice. 


Their chemistry never sizzles, but they have some lovely duets. “Twin Soliloquies,” where the two privately express their insecurities about their relationship, says way more about their connection than the laughably stilted dialogue on their first date when Emile confesses to killing a man – and doesn’t bother to give any more explanation. (Likewise when he abruptly springs another surprise on Nellie later in the first act.)


There’s a secondary, but much less affecting love story between Lt. Joseph Cable, a young man with a daring plan to help the war effort, and Liat, the way-too-young daughter of the manipulative Bloody Mary (Jodi Kimura), a Tonkinese woman who thinks the American is her daughter’s ticket off the island.


The musical does venture into some serious territory, most notably the racial prejudices some of the Americans find are more deeply ingrained than they thought (neatly depicted in “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”), which force them to consider what is really important to them. But the dramatic climax, where a dangerous mission goes awry, was too hastily sketched to be believable.


Yet despite some overacting by the supporting players, the cast is lively and a pleasure to listen to, and the vibrant island sets are lovely. As long as you can get past the sprawling storyline and cringe-worthy dialogue, the exquisite score will show you why South Pacific remains a classic.




South Pacific runs until Sept. 5 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. For more information, visit

Related articles: (stage, south pacific, dancap, aubrey dan, jason howard, carmen cusack)

Share with friends Print this page Read later Recommend 0 times