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Posted at 5:44 PM ET, 12/22/2010

What gives with over-amped 'South Pacific'?

By Nelson Pressley

Not for nothing did Peter Marks mention over-amplification in the third sentence of his "South Pacific" review at the Kennedy Center Friday. The Lincoln Center Theater revival, which had audiences oohing and ahhing over its sumptuous sound in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre (where this production ran for more than two years), has dramatically turned up the volume on the road.

That's not just this listener's idiosyncratic opinion. At intermission Thursday night, my seatmate immediately inquired whether a live orchestra was in the pit, so conspicuous was the electronic sound pumped from the speaker towers on either side of the stage. In fact, the orchestra is 26 strong, as Marks noted in his piece about the resurgent orchestral presence in musicals (which, in the age of tiny ensembles playing Sondheim shows on Broadway, figures to be a good thing).

That "sensuous auditory experience" promised by a big live orchestra is compromised, though, by a bossy electronic sound design. What gives? Yes, the Opera House, at 2300 seats, is twice as large as the Vivian Beaumont (1100), and there was amplification in the Beaumont, too (though it was gingerly done). But it's hard not to conclude that the producers of this otherwise expertly crafted show felt they had to juice up the sound for we rubes in the provinces.

This quality-of-sound problem is hardly new. Jonathan Tunick, the longtime orchestrator for Stephen Sondheim musicals, groused to the Post years ago about nervous honchos and their impulse to "make the performance as exciting as possible. So they run to the sound desk and say, 'Zap it up!'"

Is that impulse right? Are our ears trained to shut down now unless the sound, even for such lush and nuanced scores as this one, comes at us in great crashing waves? Or are producers and directors selling us short? How do musicals sound to you at the Kennedy Center, the National Theater, etc.? The calling card of this generally glorious "South Pacific" in New York was its velvet glove handling of the music, with the lip of the stage retracting at the top of each act to reveal the orchestra playing Richard Rodgers's sterling overtures. Here, it's hard not to look toward those speaker towers from the conductor's first downbeat.

"South Pacific" is here until Jan. 16.

By Nelson Pressley  | December 22, 2010; 5:44 PM ET
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I may be a rube in the provinces myself, but back in the one room schoolhouse of my youth I was taught that the correct object in a prepositional phrase like the one at the end of the 3rd sentence in the 3rd paragraph of this post would be "us" rather than "we," even when followed by a modifying phrase like "in the provinces."

Posted by: lafsky | December 24, 2010 8:05 AM | Report abuse

Saw the show last night. Thanks for validating my critical faculties. Much of the sound was over-miked and over-juiced. At the Act I overture, the pit band sounded canned to me, so electronically tweaked and tortured was its output. Still, it's seminal R&H, and I'm happy for the opportunity finally to have seen it on stage as I approach my 6th decade.

Posted by: ctaylor31 | December 24, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse

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