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Originally published Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 5:01 PM

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Restored 'South Pacific' sails into Seattle

Director Bartlett Sher has a homecoming with touring production of "South Pacific," winner of the Tony for best musical revival on Broadway.

Seattle Times theater critic

'South Pacific'

Opens Sunday, runs Tuesdays-Sundays through Feb. 21, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $22-$93 (206-625-1900 or www.5thavenue.org).

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From the first bars of the love song "Some Enchanted Evening," the 1949 musical "South Pacific" sweeps you into one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's finest Broadway offerings.

And one hard to fully realize, without: a) an operatic baritone with sex appeal; b) an actress- singer who makes American "cockeyed optimism" palatable; and c) a director who imbues the show with the right sense of time (World War II), place (far-flung Pacific island) and cultural friction propelling the superb score.

Bartlett Sher, who stepped down as head of Seattle's Intiman Theatre in December, is the director who succeeded on all fronts with his widely hailed Broadway staging of "South Pacific."

Justly rewarded with one of the revival's seven 2008 Tony Awards, Sher is also "totally 100 percent involved" in the national tour version opening at the 5th Avenue Theatre on Sunday. It will be a heady Seattle homecoming for Sher: the "South Pacific" debut, preceded by a Saturday-night gala, celebrating his decadelong tenure as Intiman's artistic director.

Sher recently reflected on his ties to Seattle and his invigoration of "South Pacific."

The Broadway classic was based by composer Rodgers, and lyricist Hammerstein (who wrote its book with director Josh Logan), on material in James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific."

Michener's Pulitzer Prize- winning collection of stories drew on his experiences as a World War II naval officer on Espiritu Santo (now called Vanuatu), in the New Hebrides Islands.

The musical revolves around "hick" naval nurse Nellie Forbush (played here by Carmen Cusack), and hardened naval pilot Joe Cable (Anderson Davis), whose prejudices are challenged by love affairs — Nellie's with dashing French planter Emile De Becque (Rod Gilfry), and Joe's with a "Bali Hai" native girl, Liat (Sumie Maeda).

"The material makes more sense in some ways now, because we know much more about what war does to people, and how racism works," Sher suggested.

"Joe flew missions for 14 months, in the worst fighting of the war in that area. Clearly he has some kind of post-traumatic stress that leads him to seek solace with Liat. Nellie, from Arkansas, probably never would have met a Frenchman with biracial children, except in the war."

Though equipped with more standard Broadway numbers (the exuberant "I'm In Love With a Wonderful Guy," "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame") the show was prescient in examining ingrained American bigotry, most hauntingly in the song "You've Got to Be Taught."

Sher was also allowed to restore in full a meaningful exchange between Nellie and Cable discussing the prejudice in their backgrounds. And the staging subtly alludes to the segregation of troops in the U.S. forces.

Sher also wanted actors with onstage romantic chemistry to play Nellie and Emile. (It was lacking, reportedly, between original co-stars Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.)

"That love relationship is at the center of the show, it's what the plot hangs on," Sher stressed. "It has to feel intimate and real, with romantic stakes so high, it changes Nellie."

Sher's staging succeeds, opines 5th Avenue head David Armstrong, because the director gave every character and scene "the full dramatic impact that was inherent in the material, and simply by doing this ... he created this wonderfully dynamic and moving production." For the tour, Sher chose Grammy-nominated opera singer Gilfry and "Wicked" veteran Cusack for roles filled at Lincoln Center by the dashing Brazilian baritone Paolo Szot, a Tony honoree, and marvelous Kelli O'Hara, previously a star of "Light in the Piazza." (Composed by Seattle resident Adam Guettel, "Piazza" was premiered by Sher at Intiman, and also succeeded on Broadway.)

O'Hara will concertize at Intiman's "Bash for Bart" on Saturday, which benefits the theater's new Bartlett Sher Artistic Fund. Former Seattle acting mainstay Laurence Ballard (now teaching at Georgia's Savannah College of Art and Design) emcees.

Sher is much in demand on Broadway and the international opera circuit. Next up is directing a new musical based on Pedro Almodóvar's film, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," for Lincoln Center Theatre (where Sher is resident director).

Though he drew local criticism for being an absentee honcho in his last years at Intiman, Sher has only positive things to say about the city where he developed such Intiman world premieres as "A Light in the Piazza," "Nickel and Dimed" and "The Singing Forest."

"My family and I miss Seattle every day, we loved it here," he stressed."It's a mixed blessing to be in New York. I feel very lucky to do what I'm doing, but a substantial part of my life and work have been here."

When time allows, Sher wants to direct again at Intiman, under new artistic head Kate Whoriskey's watch. If so, he may well tackle a Shakespeare play.

"I haven't done 'King Lear,' 'Hamlet,' 'Henry IV' yet ... some of the big ones," he mused. "Now that I've directed operas and musicals too, I know those plays are the hardest to do — by far."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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