Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Butch Men In Drag

I've always enjoyed browsing through the classifieds for inspiration. Several weeks ago, I came across an item which read "The Met and the Spike: Versatile, 33, 6'l", l80 seeks intelligent, hot, sane buddy for operagoing and S&M'ing. Most scenes OK; most operas too. No scat. No Renata Scotto." Then, on the very night I was scheduled to attend the New York City Opera's production of South Pacific, I discovered the following gem in the back pages of New York Native:

"Former U.S. Marine Corps crossdresser. Butch, goodlooking on street. 6', 209 lbs, 40s. Muscled Amazon in bed. Exploit my beefy body parts, i.e., my hot hairwaxed breast and smooth muscular pecs with face-engulfing cleavage! My 26" gym thighs that strain to burst my black net stockings! My beautiful, large, white, squat-made ass that hides my screaming pussy! These globes forced into an open-backed, black, flower-patterned girdle! My 18" arms with standout triceps will hold you as you mount me and gross out on my pecs turned into breasts by my open front, underwire supported bra!"

"Well, well, well," I thought. "Those servicemen have certainly come a long way since Luther Billis donned his grass skirt and that tacky brassiere fashioned out of coconuts!" The truth, however, is that the world and our perceptions of the people who inhabit it have changed dramatically since Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific first took Broadway by storm. Forty years ago, the sight of a butchly tattooed Seabee in a grass skirt, all dolled up in drag to entertain the troops, was accompanied by an air of rowdy and innocent fun. Today it is an intensely serious fantasy.


Back in 1949, the sights and sounds of Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza performing their pseudo-operatic twin soliloquies on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific Ocean were downright revolutionary with regard to standard conventions of the American musical theatre. South Pacific's treatment of such controversial topics as war and miscegenation was shocking to American audiences who were not only high on post-war prosperity but grossly ignorant about the pain engendered by racial prejudice. As a benchmark of more innocent times, I derived quite a chuckle from discovering the presence of Ensign Lisa Minelli and Ensign Sue Yaeger (Sue Yager Cook is one of Beverly Sills' oldest friends) among the characters in the female chorus for South Pacific.

Nevertheless, time plays strange tricks on our minds. Looking back, I remember all too well how, as a child, I memorized the original cast album of South Pacific without having the slightest idea what Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics truly meant. Because so much of this musical centers around the loss of innocence, I'm convinced that one's bittersweet knowledge of emotional deprivation -- an awareness which can only come with age and experience -- has to have a direct effect on one's appreciation of South Pacific.

Therefore, because today's world is more crowded and much uglier in temperament than it was forty years ago, what seemed shocking in 1949 is quite tame by current media standards. I suppose this is largely due to the combined and accelerated effects of television, the sexual revolution, the drug culture and today's horror movies (all of which have had such a dramatic impact on our lives that it has become extremely difficult to shock audiences).

All I know is that, today, I am an older and sadder but wiser girl. Although I retain a certain amount of cock-eyed optimism, I, too, have been through the mill a few times. Like Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque, I've fallen in love with a couple of wonderful guys, tried to wash some men right out of my hair and regretted losing one or two great loves which once nearly were mine.

Thus, even though previous productions of South Pacific may have seemed lackluster and boring, 1987's revival hit home with a strangely surprising poignancy. To be honest, South Pacific is not a very slick show. Robert Russell Bennett's original orchestrations have come to sound quite cheesy and the musical's dramatic exposition seems to take forever. Compared to musicals like Gypsy, Mame and Les Miserables, South Pacific moves sluggishly and has many raw moments. Although the show is nowhere as slick as later generations of Broadway musicals, its score is still a marvel and Joshua Logan's book retains many poignant moments. Thus, there is little reason to doubt its appeal.

For this production at City Opera, Desmond Heeley's sets and costumes did a superb job of capturing the cruel contrast between the gentle outdoor graces of Polynesian life and the harsh realities of military warfare. Duane Schuler's evocative lighting schemes wavered between the softly seductive settings of Bali Ha'i and the richly romantic moods of an innocent young hick named Nellie Forbush. Gerald Freedman's direction, although it may have seemed overly respectful of the original, stuck to a strong sense of dramatic truth despite the problems of grappling with a period piece.


Whereas most Broadway revivals have a single cast, City Opera's repertory system allowed me to see two sets of artists performing in South Pacific. I was particularly drawn to Susan Bigelow's Nellie Forbush, a portrayal which captured all of this young woman's nervous clumsiness and rural innocence without losing any of the character's brash exuberance. By contrast, Marcia Mitzman's heroine was a bit too slick and mechanical for my tastes; her characterization struck me as being totally competent and totally invulnerable -- a performance that would be more at home in an industrial show. Chris Groenendaal and Richard White alternated in the role of Lieutenant Joseph Cable with pleasing results. Groenendaal's tall, butch looks and porcine facial features made me think of a stubborn white suburban boy getting a tough taste of reality; White's superb vocalism brought a more lyrical touch to the role.

The most noticeable differences in casting could be seen in the role of Bloody Mary. Muriel Costa-Greenspon's Tonkinese trader, which was execrably abrasive and musically off-pitch for most of the evening, proved to be a supreme embarrassment. By contrast, tiny little Camille Saviola captured every bit of earthiness in Bloody Mary's character, singing with such a wondrous and magical command of the character that her work could easily challenge any memories of Juanita Hall.

Others in the cast included Tony Roberts as the raucous but tender-hearted Luther Billis, James Billings as Captain Brackett and baritone Stanley Wexler, who crafted a superbly mature and subdued characterization of Emile de Becque. Despite the presence of Ezio Pinza in the show's original cast, the question most frequently asked is whether or not South Pacific belongs in the operatic repertory. In addition to the New York City Opera, both the Minnesota Opera and Wolf Trap Farm for the Performing Arts will be performing South Pacific this season. When produced under ideal circumstances, this show holds up quite well -- no matter who performs it.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 7, 1987.

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