NEW YORK -- Sadly, everything old can't be new again. But the past can certainly be elegantly reintroduced, as it has been with 's production of "South Pacific," the first bona fide Broadway revival since Rodgers and Hammerstein's insanely hummable musical premiered in 1949.
The show, which opened Thursday with a cast headed by Kelli O'Hara as Ensign Nellie Forbush and Brazilian opera singer Paulo Szot as a youngish Emile de Becque, is like an old friend who turns up looking nattier than ever, no matter that the outfit he's wearing hasn't been sold at the finer department stores in decades.
Bartlett Sher's sensual, sea-swept staging majestically serves up what we adore most about the work -- the preternaturally melodic score. The ceaseless parade of beloved standards ("Some Enchanted Evening," "A Wonderful Guy") and rousing numbers ("There Is Nothin' Like a Dame") is performed by a formally attired 30-piece orchestra, which sits underneath a stage that slides open to reveal the source of our acoustical rapture.
Set designer Michael Yeargan creates a series of impressionist postcards, entrancingly lighted by Donald Holder to evoke sunsets in paradise. But it's not all aesthetic dash and choreographic seduction. The production tries to accentuate this quintessentially American operetta's strokes of somber realism.
Sher doesn't back down from confronting what is perhaps the main reason the show hasn't been around the Broadway block as often as "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel" -- the treatment of racial intolerance in the story adapted from James A. Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific."
The musical begins with the budding romance between Nellie, a naive Navy nurse from Little Rock, Ark., and Emile, a wealthy middle-aged plantation owner with a few skeletons in his closet.
Curiously, Nellie can forgive Emile for having killed a notorious bully back home, but she flees in a melodramatic thunderclap after discovering that the two adorable mixed-raced children trilling around his beachfront villa don't belong to the servants but rather to Emile and his deceased Polynesian first wife.
This plot line is paralleled with another one that was intended to test the openness of white Americans. Bloody Mary (Loretta Ables Sayre, luscious voiced and farcically fierce), a coarse proprietor of grass skirts and other exotic desirables, would like her beautiful young daughter, Liat (Li Jun Li), to marry the handsome Lt. Joseph Cable (Matthew Morrison), who encounters her on the island of Bali Ha'i, set up as a mystical land of forbidden fruit.
Caught between his feverish passion for Liat and the chilly expectation of his Ivy League upbringing, Cable has an epiphany in song ("You've Got to Be Carefully Taught"), an enlightened statement about bigotry that unfortunately for him comes too late for anything but World War II heroics.
The book is serious, noble and, yes, cumbersome, and Sher's reverential handling sometimes slows the pacing. If there's one arguable misstep, it's in O'Hara's characterization of Nellie, who's played with sharp clarinet accents of melancholy.
Reba McEntire's radiant concert version (performed last summer at the Hollywood Bowl) added country charm to the sincerity and pert spontaneity of Mary Martin's legendary original. O'Hara, a rising Broadway star after "The Light in the Piazza" and "The Pajama Game," is many things -- a clarion soprano, a delicate ingenue -- but one would be hard-pressed to call the half-smiling woman she portrays here a "cockeyed optimist."
Nellie describes herself as a "hick," though O'Hara seems quietly sophisticated, and her sighs and sidelong stares don't exactly scream "corny as Kansas in August."
O'Hara's fine-tuned showmanship, however, doesn't disappoint (she springs to incongruously vivacious life in "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" and "Honey Bun"). And the upshot of her more sober interpretation is a deepening of the romantic interest. Her Nellie is as much a fugitive from society as Szot's Emile is. They're amorous outcasts who have refused to throw in the towel even as the war-weary world explodes around them.
Ever alert to the music's magnified subtext, Szot conveys an awareness of the increased chanciness of two maturing hearts melding into one. His rendition of "Some Enchanted Evening" resonates with the basso-profundo surprise of autumnal love.
But who could help falling into a delicious delirium with such an effervescent supporting cast, particularly Danny Burstein as Luther Billis, the colorful opportunist who leads his fellow seabees into a giddy reverie with "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame."
Rodgers and Hammerstein's work is iconic not just for a theatrical generation but also for an American era. And with Iraq and Barack Obama's speech on race on everyone's mind, the time couldn't be riper for a revival of "South Pacific."
Yet for all the show's ethical ambition, it's the traditional musical comedy certainty that mutual affection will find a way to withstand our native foolishness that most deeply touches our song-filled humanity.