Last evening -- a cold night that only the lush melodies of Richard Rodgers could properly warm up -- I had a new experience: I went to see South Pacificin the company of a child. I had attended a schools matinee in May, a delightfully raucous affair punctuated by the energetic whoops of adolescents, but I had never seen the show through a child's eyes.
My companion was named Olivia Smith-James, and, yes, she's English. She is also eight. Her parents, old friends of mine, in stopover between Los Angeles and London, had read a story in the New York Times about how top Manhattan restaurants, previously reserved months in advance, now are immediately bookable, and decided to take advantage. By themselves.
Now, I have always counseled family and friends that children under the age of ten might find South Pacific an epic sit: Fidgeting Dead Ahead. But this advice was moot with Miss Olivia. She is home-schooled (or "tutored," as her old-fashioned mother puts it), and, as video games and other attention-shattering pastimes are banned from the Smith-James domicile, she knows how to maintain focus. For me, her home schooling conferred another advantage: I didn't feel as if I were criminally keeping a child up beyond her bedtime on a school night.
Dressed in a pinafore-crisp, bow-laden outfit of the sort I'd thought illegal outside of Nutcracker matinees, Olivia kept still during South Pacific's first act. She giggled only once, when Bloody Mary, in response to Billis, who has been complaining of the preferential treatment she is giving to Lt. Cable, roars, "You not sexy like Lieutellant." "Bloody's right," Olivia whispered to me, "Cable is quite hot." (Video games may be verboten at the Smith-Jameses, but not, apparently, programs with Paris Hilton.)
The under-18 crowd is generally most taken with South Pacific's children, Ngana and Jerome; several after-performance questions at the schools matinee had focused on those role's interpreters, Laurissa Romain and Luka Kain, and how they had gotten into the business. Olivia bypassed the kids and went right for the star: where, she asked me at intermission, had Kelli O'Hara "received her training." Yale? Juilliard? No, I replied, Oklahoma City University, an excellent school befitting an actress playing Nellie Forbush, who hails from the state next door, Arkansas. "I suspect I'll never go to Little Rock," responded Olivia.
Lest it seem, at this point, that I was in the company of a too-precocious little girl, let me hasten to assure you that any trace of the snob vanished in act two. Olivia's reaction to South Pacific's concluding events could not have been simpler. Nellie's racism? "Ignorance," Olivia said. The death of her hottie? "Heroic," she offered. The fate of Bloody Mary and Liat? "Tragic," she sobbed.
Contrary to a girl being brought up in Britain, Olivia was the first to leap to her feet at the curtain call ("In London," she said, "people barely stand up for the Queen"), and was the last person to continue applauding. When I asked her if she'd like to go backstage, to meet the cast, she thought for a moment, then said, "I don't think so. That would spoil the illusion, wouldn't it?"
The sophisticate had returned.
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com