It's been more than half a century since Rodgers & Hammerstein's "South Pacific" opened on Broadway in 1949, but its incredible score -- which includes such standards as "Some Enchanted Evening," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" and "A Cockeyed Optimist" -- is still younger than springtime.
And it gets its full due as Reba McEntire, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Alec Baldwin head up a stellar cast in "South Pacific in Concert From Carnegie Hall," an irresistible "Great Performances" special airing Wednesday, April 26, on PBS (check local listings).
McEntire was handpicked for the role of nurse Nellie Forbush by Mary Rodgers, the composer's daughter, after she saw the Grammy-winning singer in her triumphant 1991 Broadway run of "Annie Get Your Gun." Tony winner Mitchell ("Kiss Me, Kate") also was a logical choice to play French planter Emile de Becque, with Baldwin as wisecracking sailor Luther Billis. Jason Danieley and Lillias White round out the principal cast as, respectively, Lt. Joseph Cable and Bloody Mary.
"I was thrilled to be even asked to do this, and that it was going to be a one-performance thing was very exciting to me," McEntire says. "It was a huge challenge, but they told me we could be 'on book' and not in full costume, so I was excited about that, too. I thought it was going to be very, very fun working with Alec Baldwin and Brian Stokes Mitchell and all the rest of the cast.
"The music in 'South Pacific' is just very beautiful, as everyone knows, and the story is very romantic -- and again, they're asking me to play a gal from Arkansas. Well, I'm a gal from Oklahoma, so it fit in very well with my character and my demeanor, and I really had a wonderful time."
Unlike the realistic but uneven 2001 ABC TV movie adaptation starring Glenn Close, this "South Pacific," taped during a one-night-only performance last summer, unfolds on a virtually bare stage with a cast that carries scripts in hand, yet it winds up delivering an emotional wallop that the New York Times review described as "a state of nearly unconditional rapture."
"It's all there in the music," McEntire says. "Walter Bobbie did such a great job of directing this, because he didn't bother putting things like palm trees on the stage. He just let the words and the music carry it all. I was thrilled with it. Just let your imagination go, and get into the words and music, and you're there.
"I remember hearing 'I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair' before I even knew where it came from," she adds. "You just always knew that song, although I didn't know many of the others. But I so loved doing 'Honey Bun.' That was my favorite moment in the show because I really got to cut up and have some fun and dance around in costume."
In retrospect, McEntire concedes that she wishes she had been able to spend enough rehearsal time to commit her entire role to memory instead of having to refer to her script for much of her dialogue and lyrics.
"Yeah, that was a deterrent," she says. "It was not good for me. If I had it to do over again, and if I ever do something like this again, I will have it memorized. Stokes [Mitchell] and I were talking about this, and he said, 'I think I know it, but since we're taping it, I'm going to have that book. If we weren't taping it, I think I could go off book.' You just need that assurance, and it's like your security blanket.
"One time I had to go backstage and change clothes, I took my script back there and came back out without it. I just turned to someone and whispered, 'Let me see your script!' and just pulled it out of his lap and walked to the microphone, but oh, my heart was in my throat."
You wouldn't know that from her touching performance, which gains assurance as the performance progresses right up to a final curtain that is guaranteed to leave few dry eyes in the audience. McEntire says she isn't offended when critics seem stunned to discover she's a good actress.
"With every new project I go into, whether it's Broadway, television or my new clothing line, I know that I have to prove myself," she says. "That's understandable. Even though I am a country singer and I have toured for 30 years, when I came to Broadway people were asking, 'Well, yeah, but what is she doing here?' I didn't go into 'Annie Get Your Gun' with any great expectations, any notion of 'I'm gonna win this town over,' or anything like that. I wanted to go be Annie Oakley; that's all I had in mind. I wanted to sing those songs I love so much and be onstage with all those very talented, professional people and just have a blast.
"If someone came onto my turf, I'd want to see what they can do before I start saying, 'Yes, you can or can't do this.' I'm just grateful they gave me a chance.'
McEntire's happiness with this PBS performance, which also was released on a Decca Broadway audio CD earlier this month, is compounded by her awareness that her schedule won't allow her to revisit Broadway or its music anytime soon.
"I've got my boat loaded right now," she says, sighing. 'Reba,' my TV show, has been picked up for two more seasons. I'm also doing 28 shows at the Las Vegas Hilton this summer, taking Barry Manilow's vacation dates. I'm also in my sophomore year of my clothing line for Dillard's. We recently did an in-store event in Reno for that, showing off my spring line.
"We're also trying to put in some family time. We're doing two or three vacations this summer, so I've gotta keep up with my family. I have a new granddaughter we're trying to get back to Nashville to see, along with the other three grandkids, so it's a busy life."