Some enchanted evenings call for two strangers. Rod Gilfry and David Pittsinger, baritones from the world of opera, will tag-team the role of dashing Emile de Becque in the revival of “South Pacific” that opens this week at the Ahmanson Theatre.
The blond, buff Gilfry and the tall, intense Pittsinger may be unfamiliar to musical theater audiences, but they are big names on the international opera circuit. Los Angeles Opera General Director Plácido Domingo, who has worked with both men, says Gilfry and Pittsinger embody the best of contemporary opera, offering “superb vocalism and dramatic insights matched with the right looks for the roles they perform.”
In this case, the role is a Hemingway-style hero with a complicated past. Set on a remote Pacific Island during World War II, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic follows the unlikely romance of Emile, a French plantation owner with biracial children, and Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, a self-described “little hick” from Arkansas — a love affair in the midst of gunfire, secret missions and plenty of prejudice.
Despite the show’s string of famous numbers (“Nothing Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “Younger Than Springtime,” “Bali Ha’i”), it had been regarded as kitschy and dated in its treatment of race. But this production, which originated at Lincoln Center in 2008 and picked up seven Tonys (including best revival of a musical and best director for Bartlett Sher), won collective praise for its lyricism and historical detail. (Sher’s staging acknowledges the segregation of the U.S. Navy in 1942.)
Gilfry says the production “gets the heart of what the story is about. It’s set in a war zone. Danger is palpable. And racism is very present.” Sher pored through the original book by Oscar Hammerstein and Josh Logan, restoring key material, including a frank conversation about race between Nellie and Lt. Cable, the blue-blooded Navy airman who falls for Liat, the daughter of local madam Bloody Mary. Also included is Emile’s back story: He fled France after killing a bully in his hometown of Marseilles, an act of violence that haunts him.
“The feeling of the play is one of urgency,” says Pittsinger. “No one knew what would happen next. It’s almost like 9-11. In a crisis, people gravitate to what they need to be around. Emile was a womanizer. Nellie starts out as a small-town bigot. But their love pushes them into something greater, something full of possibility and hope.”
Gilfry is thrilled by Sher’s interpretation. “People sing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ as a pickup song. Like, ‘Hey, baby.’ But it’s not that at all. The song is an explanation of why Emile wants to marry Nellie after knowing her for only two weeks. Emile is saying to her, ‘When you wait a long time for something good and it shows up, you have to seize the moment.’ ”
Gilfry and Pittsinger find Emile a natural fit. They are the right age for the part. Each has spent much of his career in Europe. Both studied French, making the Gallic accent a snap. Nonetheless, Carmen Cusack, who plays Nellie, says they make for very different Emiles. “Rod has a humor and lightness to him. The audience falls in love with him immediately. David is passionate, a strong presence. With David, I have to balance my performance by being less girly.”
Sher echoes Cusack’s assessment. “Rod is gentler, more elegant; David has so much testosterone he’s lost most of his hair.”
Gilfry opens the show on Wednesday, with Pittsinger stepping in on June 22.
The easygoing Gilfry is a California native, born in Covina and raised in Claremont. Last week he was happy to be home after a gig in Des Moines, padding around his Rancho Cucamonga home decorated with souvenirs from his world travels. The baritone’s brawny physique and nuanced acting has led to star turns as Benjamin Britten’s title character in “Billy Budd” and Stanley in Andre Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
In 1986, Gilfry and Domingo made their L.A. Opera debut together in “Otello.” Domingo played the title role; Gilfry sang one line. He was thrilled. It’s an experience the baritone recounts in his one-man cabaret. “I was doing the cabaret in Spain; Plácido happened to be in town and came to the show. There he was, sitting in the fifth row. I told the ‘Otello’ story, and sang my one line. Then Plácido stood up and sang the response. It was the most validating experience of my professional life.”
Like Gilfry, Connecticut-born Pittsinger didn’t rush into the opera world. He appeared in his share of high school musicals but followed his two loves, soccer and politics, before applying for a college scholarship in music. His wife, singer Patricia Schuman, urged Pittsinger to audition for the role when Tony winner Paulo Szot left the cast.
“You’d be so insulted if someone asked you to audition in the opera world,” says Gilfry, chatting with Pittsinger by phone.
“Opera singers tend to be so freakin’ conceited.” Pittsinger laughs. “No kidding.”
Both men have used the run of “South Pacific” to develop their skills. Emile sings less than 15 minutes the entire evening and barely shares any song time with his leading lady. (Apparently Mary Martin, the original Nellie, didn’t want to compete with the vocal prowess of costar Ezio Pinza.) The love story exists primarily in the dialogue — something new for these opera veterans.
Pittsinger relishes the creative freedom of being in theater. “Opera singers come in knowing the music cold. In theater you find it. In opera there is no time of your own. You always have to consider a 60-piece orchestra. With dialogue in theater, you can change punctuation, try a slightly different interpretation. It’s like composing your own music.”
Gilfry couldn’t agree more. “What we don’t get to do in opera is constant onstage practice. That’s the beauty of eight shows a week. It’s a beautiful way to improve on your performance.”
“South Pacific” runs at the Ahmanson until July 17. For Sher, the Obama era is the perfect moment for this revival. When it premiered in 1949, he says, “South Pacific” contained “all the information about the future of America. When Nellie chooses to take care of Emile’s children, she’s making a new kind of family. That’s who we are now in this country.”
He says the show’s real story is about our ability to transform. “Getting ‘Bali Ha’i’ is not a tropical thing. It’s about experiencing something so different than yourself that it changes you completely,” Sher said. “That happened to these young men and women who came to the South Pacific. Or the opera singer who enters the world of musical theater. It’s about getting opened up.”