The period during which actors and crew toil painstakingly on set and lighting cues is commonly known as "tech hell": the constant motion of the rehearsal room morphs into a start-and-stop rhythm of activity that resembles a movie set, and working days stretch toward midnight. On Tuesday of this week, however, as South Pacific entered into this labor-intensive process, the Vivian Beaumont felt paradisal: everyone watched Michael Yeargan's wonderfully suggestive set rise and fall, bathed in the beauty of Donald Holder's lighting.
During a break in the activity, with the theater lit mostly by the computer screens sitting on the command-control-like technical banks scattered throughout the audience, Danny Burstein, the production's Billis, talked about Day One in the Beaumont. "This is my first time doing a show in this theater," he said, "and I'm impressed by both how large the stage is and yet how intimate the place feels when you're up there."
Burstein may be a novice performer at Lincoln Center Theater, but he's no newbie, metaphorically, to the New York City mainstage. He grew up in the Bronx and in Queens, and he attended the High School of Performing Arts -- back when it was in the heart of Broadway, on West 46th Street, rather than behind Lincoln Center, its current home. "In those days, we used to second-act shows every Wednesday," he said, "and that was a crucial part of my education."
Although Burstein doesn't consider himself a singer ("I'm an actor who sings"), doing musicals has allowed him to make a living in the theater. In 1984, at age 19, he got his Actors Equity card in a St. Louis production of The Music Man, and, a couple of seasons ago on Broadway, he gave a scene-stealing performance as Adolpho, in The Drowsy Chaperone.
"In Drowsy, Burstein revealed, "I sang how I imagined my character -- a Latin lover -- would sing. In South Pacific, I sing like how I imagine a construction worker -- like Billis -- would sing." Burstein added, "I sing like a construction worker from New York would sing. In the James Michener stories the show is based on, it's never clear where the Billis character is from. It basically says only that Billis is fat and tan." Burstein paused, and then gave a line reading in the deadpan manner that has had him, more than perhaps any cast member, sparking laughter in the rehearsal room the past month. "Well, I'm not fat, and I'm not tan. We'll have to wait till spring for that."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com.