Carmen Cusack Brings it Home In ‘South Pacific’

One thing about headlining not one, but two tours of major Broadway shows: you can go home again.

That’s certainly been the case for Carmen Cusack, who is starring in the national tour of the Tony-Award winning revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” now at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through January 16.

Cusack stars as the brimming-with-optimism Army nurse Nellie Forbush, the role originated by the legendary Mary Martin in the 1940s original. Singing some iconic R&H songs like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” and “Wonderful Guy,” this national tour has brought her home in a big way.

“It’s good to be back,” Cusack said. “I’m thinking when this is all over that I want to settle in New York, make the rounds, do the process.”

Cusack has a personal pedigree as American as her character, Nellie. Born in Colorado and raised in Houston, she has a performing arts degree from the University of North Texas State. But she left soon after getting her degree, first signing a contract to basically tour the world performing on the QUE2, settling down in England, touring and performing on the continent. In England, she built a pretty large and eclectic resume, starring as Christine in “Phantom of the Opera,” as Fantine in “Les Miserables,” and for something completely different, a role in “Jack and the Space Vixens.”

“South Pacific,” with which she’s been touring nationally to great reviews, is something of a nationally iconic show, and Cusack knows it. “You know, I think people sometimes think of Nellie as naïve or innocent,” she says. “I don’t think that’s the case. I mean, this was army life in World War II, so you can’t stay innocent for too long. But she is naturally optimistic, and that’s a great, appealing part of her character. What happens when she falls in love with the French planter is that some innate prejudice comes up which she can’t shake.

“It’s hard to play that,” she says. “It’s hard to find that in yourself. Because that’s not what I’m like. I sort of touched base with growing up in the South where things were said you might not hear so easily elsewhere.

“I think the show tries to be realistic about life in wartime,” she said. “You don’t see black and white soldiers hanging out together, mingling. The director, in fact, separated us off stage too so we could get a feel for what it was like.”

If you check out her personal website, you get the feel that Cusack can handle pretty much anything, that she may surprise you every time out. Her looks, of course, change every time out. “I am the woman of many hair colors,” she quips, noting the blondish, curly do for Nelli,e which hides her naturally lustrous dark brown hair. She is also the woman who may end up with the jolly green giant. She landed the road company lead of Elphaba—the green-skinned Wicked Witch in the Land of Oz—in “Wicked.”

“Yup,” she said. “I was green.”

Her voice has range. Technically she’s a soprano, but she pours all kinds of surprises into the sampling of songs on her site, from brassy, breathy and witchy, seductive, to anthem-out-there.

One of her favorite projects, and one of her apparent idols, was the late Eva Cassidy, a local legend in the DC area for her poignant, piercing, aching singing as much as her early, tragic death from cancer. “I performed her music, played her in a show called ‘Over the Rainbow,’” she said. “She was a phenomenal talent, and it will be interesting to be here.”

The green girl brought her back to the United States when she joined the touring company in Chicago as a standby. She jumped in to land the national touring starring role and now she’s in the quintessential American tour, being “as corny as Kansas in August.”

“I think it was time to come back. It’s great to be back,” she said. “Right now, I’m touring, so I’m not settled,” she said, calling from Rhode Island before coming to DC. “But after that, I’m thinking about New York.”

With the presence of “South Pacific,” Washington becomes practically R&H headquarters, what with the hit revival of “Oklahoma!” at the Arena Stage. Welcome home, Nellie, and Carmen too.

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