No audience for South Pacific has responded exactly like any other audience, and the explanation is fairly obvious: different people take the seats of the Vivian Beaumont every night. But it's safe to say that certain moments almost always strike a chord. For example, a laugh is almost sure to arrive when Commander Harbison tells Lieutenant Cable that Nellie Forbush is "obviously in love" with Emile de Becque and Cable replies, "That's hard to believe, sir. They tell me this man is forty-four years old."
Well, at yesterday's magnificently high-spirited matinee, when public high school students from around New York City filled the theater as part of LCT's Open Stages program, Cable's line elicited barely a titter. By contrast, I've never heard such an audience roar after Bloody Mary, faced with Billis's complaint about Mary's preferential treatment of Cable, hisses, "You not saxy like Lootellan!"
In fact, I think it's safe to say that during the performance Bloody Mary was the students' favorite character, followed closely by Billis. During the post-show talk-back with some of the cast, however, the teenagers' democratic impulses took over and other actors were favored with attention. Students wanted to know how Luka Kain and Laurissa Romain, who play De Becque's children, got into show business. ("My mom," Romain replied.) They were curious about how Robert Lenzi, one of the Seabees, felt about being briefly and tastefully naked in the show. ("Cold," Lenzi deadpanned.)
The kids also wondered how the actors prepared mentally to put themselves in the mindset of people in a story set around 65 years ago. Kelli O'Hara confessed, "To play Nellie I had to be racist and I worried how it would affect you. I hoped you would understand that Nellie was wrong."
That line may have gotten the loudest cheer of the day.
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com