For fans of Musical Theatre’s Golden Age, a rare opportunity has arrived this spring. Head out to Oakbrook to experience a truly exquisite production from that era. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1949 classic has been lovingly recreated with all its grandeur and romance. When the musical first premiered on Broadway, it starring a luminous, young Mary Martin, and it introduced handsome opera star, Ezio Pinza. The show earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, ten Tony Awards, and, in 1958, it eventually hit the silver screen. After several national tours and revivals, a glorious new production opened at Lincoln Center in 2008, garnering seven more accolades for this much-loved show.
Based upon James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, this WWII musical story has become a timeless classic, a blend of romance, racism and the barriers created by prejudice, all set against the hell of war. It depicts people from all walks of life desperately trying to find their own Bali Ha’i.
Drury Lane’s latest offering, skillfully directed and by guest director Victor Malana Maog, and choreographed by Otis Sallid, is a professional, polished production that pays homage to the Broadway original, while shedding new light on all of the beloved characters. The score is presented with all of its musical magic, beautifully accompanied by Christopher Sargent’s full-sounding orchestra and perfectly acted, sung and danced by a handsome, talented cast. This production should not be missed.
Victor Malana Maog has beautifully crafted a richly textured interpretation of this musical story, set in the Pacific Islands during WWII. But, more than that, this gifted director has guided each and every actor to create a real human being, not simply a “character.” Every person on that stage is an honest, flesh and blood individual with his own wants, needs, insecurities and a fear of how War will forever change his or her life. While Maog has recreated what made this show such a charming, irresistible musical when it first opened, he’s also left his own mark, making this production uniquely all his own. Chicago will be talking about this for years to come.
Mr. Moag’s built his production around what is probably the musical’s least-known song. This might seem foolish in a show that includes a vast array of beautiful, unrivaled hits. “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine,” is sung to absolute perfection by Broadway star, Robert Cuccioli, as French planter Emile de Becque. The actor makes each of his musical moments particularly stirring, earnest and romantic. The hypnotic and exotic “Bali Ha’i,” passionately performed by Yvonne Strumecki, as a likable, but determined Bloody Mary, is staged with haunting allure. It’s unlike anything theatergoers will have seen in other productions.
But Mr. Moag has fixed the focus of his musical on Lt. Cable’s recitative, sung late in the second act, during which he attempts to explain how, with prejudice, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” Talented young tenor Austin Colby spits out his lyrics with all the venomous self-hatred and pent-up shame he’s come to realize in his attraction toward Bloody Mary’s young daughter, Liat. In Victor Malana Maog’s sumptuous, thoughtful production, this number becomes the play’s true climax.
In addition to Mr. Cuccioli, Ms. Strumecki and the handsome, extraordinarily gifted Mr. Colby, Maog’s cast is led by engaging and beautiful Broadway actress Samantha Hill as Ensign Nellie Forbush. This charmingly charismatic actress is bursting with spunk, unpretentious humor and an honest, wide-eyed innocence. Ms. Hill has an especially earnest quality that makes this heroine so relatable, far more than your typical leading lady. Ms. Hill is absolutely the real deal, as Mr. Cuccioli’s suave, likable Emile de Becque observes. Lt. Cable is in many ways Nellie’s male counterpart. Both have escaped the hell of war by finding love with someone their conservative American upbringing tells them is taboo. Nellie overcomes the voices inside her head, but for Cable it’s too late.
Matt Crowle’s seabee Luther Billis is a masterclass in comedy. He provides much of the musical’s lighter moments (he’s the grass skirted siren of the seas in the company number, “Honey Bun”). But Mr. Crowle’s character also harbors an edge that elevates his character beyond stock stereotypes. Crowle fidgets and winces, connives and controls, delivering his lines with dry sincerity. And Ms. Strumecki’s Bloody Mary is more than simply a comic caricature with two great songs. She’s a real mother desperate to secure a better life for her young daughter, Liat (lovely, graceful Sarah Lo). Her deep, resonant voice caresses the melody and attacks the lyrics of “Happy Talk” with the ferocity of a desperate car salesperson needing to make a sale.
Victor Malana Maog, Otis Sallid and musical director Roberta Duchak must be praised for this production’s dramatic pacing and musical tempos. Scott Davis’ scenic design allows the show to flow with ease. His set changes unfold effortlessly, always keeping the audience connected by avoiding unnecessary, aggravating blackouts. Yael Lubetzky’s lighting adds even more of the theatrical magic. Strangely enough, at nearly three hours, this production doesn’t feel long. The show moves smoothly and naturally, yet with a certain urgency, like the war itself. Olivera Gajic has fashioned an array of authentic-looking period costumes, the most inventive for the Act II Thanksgiving show. Created out of parachutes, mosquito netting and fabric that looks like newspaper comics, this clever designer has infused the production with pops of inventiveness and color.
There is so much to recommend in this gorgeous, topical production. The cast is perfection, the orchestra sounds full and rich. The show’s technical support is flawless and, of course, the musical itself is an American treasure. Quite simply put, to miss this production is to miss out on one of the year’s very best pieces of theatre. Drury Lane has done it again!
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 5-June 17 by Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 630-530-0111, by calling TicketMaster at 800-745-3000 or by going to www.DruryLaneTheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.