Director Bartlett Sher is at his best when he's wrestling with some giant from the canon. He has directed successful world premieres in the past—most famously A Light in the Piazza—but something about an old script stirs the fighter in Sher, and few directors can slap an old classic into new life so thoroughly or aggressively. Sher doesn't go in for gimmicks or "concepts" (we'll wait for his iLear in vain), but shovels down into a script's essence, rediscovering the eeriness of Richard III or the profound awkwardness, angst, and comedy of Uncle Vanya.
Now Sher has burrowed into the heart of South Pacific and found that—to no one's real surprise—it beats pure entertainment. This production is the touring version of Sher's 2008 Broadway production, which won seven Tony Awards, including best director. The Rodgers & Hammerstein musical is pure pop, from a land before rock 'n' roll. (It opened in 1949, one year before the founding of Chess Records, which would help rock 'n' roll forever unseat musicals as mainstream America's soundtrack.) The songs in South Pacific are so familiar, watching it sometimes feels like sitting through a jukebox musical: "Some Enchanted Evening," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame," "Bali Ha'i," and on and on. (It's the opposite of a jukebox musical, of course. The old musicals used to give America its hits, stitched together with a few plot points. Jukebox musicals take someone else's hits, stitch them together with a few plot points, and pretend it's something new.)
Like all pop hits, the songs in South Pacific are mostly about love: yearning for it, finding it, and losing it. And Sher gives in to their grandeur, never giving us a moment of subtlety or verisimilitude. Which is not a complaint—everything in his South Pacific is bold, almost stentorian. The mood is lush and elaborate (particularly the scenes on the navy base, with their contrast between the ramshackle beach party of the enlisted men and the officers' quarters where life-and-death decisions are made), the sets are lavish, and the performances slick.
The romantic leads, Carmen Cusak as a navy nurse and Rod Gilfry as a wealthy French planter, are perhaps too slick—they lack chemistry. But you don't go to South Pacific for the acting. You go for the gigantic, muscular voices (check) and the well-oiled comedy (Matthew Saldivar steals scene after scene as New York wheeler-dealer Luther Billis).
Sher found exactly what South Pacific wants to be and gave it wings. For big Broadway shows, it doesn't get much better.