Oakbrook Terrace—It’s been many seasons since “South Pacific” has received a quality production in Chicagoland. Indeed, it’s possible that many musical comedy zealots below a certain age may never have seen this classic locally. In that sense, the revival at the Drury Lane Theatre can be considered a public service, providing underexposed audiences an opportunity to enjoy a touchstone of modern musical theater in a touchstone production.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece opened in 1949 and became a cultural icon during the early 1950’s, with a road company running in downtown Chicago for many months. The musical is based on stories by James Michener and takes place on two Pacific islands during the dark early years of World War II. The libretto rests on two love stories. The primary romance involves a middle-aged French planter who is in love with Nellie Forbush, a U.S. Navy nurse serving with American troops on his island. The second and tragic love story brings together Joseph Cable, an American lieutenant, and a Polynesian girl named Liat. A company of Seabees led by the Sgt. Bilko-style Luther Billis handles most of the comedy.
The score is among the richest and most familiar in American musical theater. The audience has hardly settled in its seats before they hear “A Cockeyed Optimist” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” And the hits keep coming–“There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Bali Ha’i,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” “A Wonderful Guy,” “Younger Than Springtime,” and “This Nearly Was Mine.” Plus there is the anti-racial prejudice anthem “”You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” which aroused some controversy after the show opened on Broadway in 1949.
The first act relies primarily on the music but the book picks up in tension in the second act as the fight against the Japanese becomes more immediate and the two love affairs are put to a test.
The signature roles belong to Emile de Becque, the planter, and nurse Nellie Forbush. Opera star Ezio Pinza and Broadway superstar Mary Martin put their indelible stamp on the roles on Broadway. Drury Lane has found its own Pinza/Martin duo in Robert Cuccioli Samantha Hill. Cuccioli is just right as the mysterious and handsome Frenchman and Hill is a complete delight as the lively Nellie, complete with Arkansas accent.
Photo Credit: Brett Beiner
Hill is a real triple threat performer, with a radiant voice that holds its own with the operatic Cuccioli in the couple’s “Twin Soliloquies” duet. Hill is a charmer who doesn’t overplay the character’s perkiness, allowing for plenty of dramatic room when Nelly ‘s role turns more serious with the introduction of the racial intolerance theme (Nellie is ensnared by her homegrown racist prejudices when she meets De Becque’s two small Polynesian children by his now deceased native wife).
Director Victor Malana Moag could have coasted on supervising a basically sure-fire show, but he’s unearthed riches in the narrative and score I’d never seen before. Moag has deepened the character of Bloody Mary, elevating her from a one-song presence (Bali ha’i”) into a character of genuine dramatic weight. Matt Cowle’s Luther Billis is stripped of any excessive wise guy silliness and converted into a meaningful, though still humorous, figure in the story.
Yvonne Strumecki is a fantastic Bloody Mary, her performance an escalation from the traditional cartoon character of a comical and profane wheeler-dealer. Austin Colby makes Joseph Cable into a full-bodied, conflicted character instead of a minor figure submerged in the secondary plot line with Liat. The front liners are supported by a large cast of more than two dozen performers. They include Rika Nishikawa and Hunter DiMailig, two youngsters who fortunately play De Becque’ e Polynesian children as cute but not cutesy.
“South Pacific” isn’t a dancing show but there are a couple of splendid production numbers, choreographed with zest and humor by Otis Sallid. Sallid has created a special “Honey Bun” number that gives Hill a chance at a real star turn and she nails it. He also puts the talented chorus of Seabees and nurses through some spirited athletic paces in the “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man.”
The production designers visually and aurally establish the wartime island locale. There is good work from Scott Davis for his scene design, Olivera Gajic for the just right period costumes, especially for the nurses, Yael Lubetzky for his atmospheric lighting, and Ray Nardelli for his sound design. Considerable care and expense has gone into mounting this production and it shows.
The pit orchestra conducted by Chris Sargent (with Roberta Duchak as musical director) delivers a full Broadway caliber instrumental accompaniment. Spectators should be in their seats when the lights go down so they can enjoy the extended overture.
Photo Credit: Brett Beiner
“South Pacific” can’t help but be musically satisfying, but this revival has a dramatic and emotional strength that takes it to a new level. The music should be familiar to almost any active theatergoer, but patrons who haven’t seen a full staging in years will embark on a voyage of discovery as they see the impressive package unfold on the Drury Lane stage.
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“South Pacific” runs through June 17 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane. Performances are Wednesday at 1:30p.m.,Thursday at 1:30 and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $47 to $62. Call 630 530 0111 or Call 630 530 0111 or visit www.DruryLaneTheatre.com.
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