Confessions of a South Pacific groupie?

06/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

I'm a Type A, over-scheduled, super-rational person who has suddenly become a simpleminded, starry-eyed sap.

The reason? I recently saw the revival of South Pacific at New York's Lincoln Center Theater.

I've been trying to keep my obsession in check. I haven't written a fan letter or stalked the stage door. I haven't disclosed how many hours I've spent ITuning "Some Enchanted Evening" (sung by every major baritone you can think of), or You-Tubing Paulo Szot, the show's leading man. But I'm confessing now - because I need to know that I'm not alone in my romantic fog.

This fixation is partly because Szot himself is a great stage story: an unknown opera talent from Brazil who was plucked from relative obscurity after a year-long, international search for the perfect Emile de Becque. It's also that Szot manages to find humility in a diva-prone role, that his portrayal is not just silver-tongued but strikingly genuine, that he emits a lack of pretense rare in Broadway stars, that he manages to make a mustache sexy again, and that he literally - justifiably - stops the show with his rendition of "This Nearly Was Mine."

But above all, it's that Szot - or I should say de Becque-as-rendered-by-Szot - made me realize how atypical it is to love the way he does: blatantly, profusely, putting devotion ahead of all else. His character, de Becque - a Frenchman who sought refuge in the the Tropics after committing a seemingly honorable crime back home - is not just unapologetic about his love for Nellie Forbush, he actually blurts it out after just one meeting, he proposes on virtually their third date, and then he refuses a dangerous military mission just because he wants to stay alive for this woman.

Okay, okay, I know it's an old-fashioned musical from the 50s where everything is exaggerated; people fall in love at dinner parties, sailors dance on fake boats, bigotry evaporates in two acts. The lyrics and dialogue aren't exactly understated or true to normal speech. I know I've become the stereoptype of the newly middle-aged (doesn't 43 count?), happily-married woman who is amazed to find herself swooning over a stranger in make-up, jodphurs, and a neck kerchief.

But I think I understand why Szot's performance stayed with me.

It brought to mind the thousands of American soldiers still in Iraq, who have people back home whom they too love more than their duty, but who did not or could not make de Becque's choice to avoid putting themselves in harm's way.

It highlighted how rare it is to see a suave male protagonist choose the girl over the job, the mush over the mission.

I don't expect us to sing arias to each other, but it made me wish we could let ourselves be that flagrant, that brazen in our sentiments. Today, we play it cool. We follow "The Rules," we overthink, process, contain ourselves. When are we ever that barefaced, that unedited, that vulnerable?

Last week, in the middle of a crazy hot day where I was getting little work done and my two kids had to be in six places at once, I actually found myself drawn to an Upper West Side Barnes and Noble because the cast of South Pacific was to appear there to sing selections. (They were promoting the new cast album and a book that chronicles the musical's history.) I rode the escalator in a trance, then felt idiotic when I encountered the endless snake of people who had already been waiting over an hour.

My internal struggle began:
"You have better things to do than wait on this line to hear a schmaltzy song."
"But when else will you get to see this Brazilian up close, without his sideburns dyed gray?"
"Anyone who has time to stand on this line at four in the afternoon needs to get a life."
"People are here for the same reason you are. They were moved, too."

Surprise: I stuck it out. I was among the lucky few to get standing room. While waiting for Szot to sing his famous serenade, (the other leads are also remarkable, but they weren't the reason I'd come), I watched him sitting on the sidelines in blue jeans, legs crossed, sipping a Poland Spring. As I searched for clues as to whether he might be Emile de Becque in real life, it dawned on me that I'd imbued this actor with all of the intensity and ardor he showed on stage. I wanted to believe in what he represents. I wanted to believe Szot is as unrestrained as the man he portrays.

When he finally sang "Some Enchanted Evening," I could feel the people around me melting in their shoes. The woman standing to my left leaned close as if we were co-conspirators. "It's too much," she whispered.

Exactly. But "too much" is just enough once in a while. It reminds us there's joy in extremes and abandon. It confirmed that beneath my level-headed, New York armor, I'm as corny as Kansas; and it reminded me of all the lovers kept apart by this endless war.

An hour later I went back down the escalator to reality.
Au revoir, Emile; Or as they say in Rio: Tchau, Paulo.

"One love to be livin' for
This nearly was mine."