By Colin Douglas
For fans of Musical Theatre’s Golden Age, a rare opportunity has arrived this summer to experience an exquisite production from that era. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1949 classic, South Pacific, is lovingly recreated by Evanston’s Light Opera Works with all its original grandeur and romance.
The musical first premiered on Broadway, starring a luminous, young Mary Martin, and it introduced handsome opera star, Ezio Pinza. It earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 10 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 popular show.
Based upon James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, this WWII story has become a timeless classic, a blend of romance and the barriers created by prejudice and racism, all set against the hell of war. It depicts people from all walks of life desperately trying to find their own Bali Ha’i.
Light Opera Works’ latest offering, skillfully directed and choreographed by Artistic Director Rudy Hogenmiller, is a professional, polished production that pays homage to the Broadway original. In keeping with tradition, the score is presented with all of its musical magic, beautifully accompanied by a 30-piece orchestra, under the competent baton of Roger L. Bingaman, and perfectly acted, sung and danced by a handsome, talented cast. This production absolutely should not be missed.
Sticking to what worked in 1949, Hogenmiller, has fashioned a richly-romantic version of this musical story, set in the Pacific Islands during WWII. Forget the bland, uninspired non-Equity tour that played downtown a year ago; this polished production truly recreates everything about the show that made it such a charming, irresistible musical when it first opened. Chicago will be talking about this for years to come.
Hogenmiller builds his production around what is probably the musical’s least-known song, in a program that includes such beautiful, unrivaled hits as “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine”
(sung to absolute perfection by one of Chicago’s finest leading men, Larry Adams, as French planter Emile de Becque), as well as the hauntingly alluring “Bali Hai” (passionately performed by Yvonne Strumecki, as Bloody Mary).
The director aims the focus of his production toward Lt. Cable’s Act 2 musical recitative during which he attempts to explain how, with prejudice, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” Talented young tenor Justin Adair spits out his lyrics with all the venomous self-hatred and pent-up shame he’s been forced to realize among so many races and nationalities during the war. In Hogenmiller’s sumptuous production, this number becomes the play’s real climax.
In addition to Adams in the role he was born to play, Strumecki and the handsome, extraordinarily gifted Adair, Hogenmiller’s cast is led by stunning Sarah Larson playing Ensign Nellie Forbush with spunk, humor and a natural, honest innocence. Larson also has an earnest quality that makes this heroine so much more relatable than the typical musical comedy leading lady.
The audience will see that Larson is the real deal, as does Mr. Adam’s suave, likable Emile de Becque. As Lt. Cable, Adair is in many ways Nellie’s younger, male counterpart. Both escape 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.
Brian Zane’s seabee Luther Billis, while providing much of the musical’s comic moments (he’s the grass skirted siren of the seas in the company number, “Honey Bun”), also harbors an edge that elevates his character beyond stock stereotypes. Strumecki’s Blood 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 Victoria M. Ng). Her rich, deep singing voice caresses the melody and lyrics of “Happy Talk” with the ferocity of a car salesperson needing to make her sale.
Hogenmiller and Roger L. Bingaman must be praised for this production’s dramatic pacing and musical tempos. Adam Veness contributes to the flow of this show with his gorgeous bamboo and parachute fabric set design. He allows scenic changes to unfold easily, always keeping the audience connected by avoiding unnecessary, aggravating blackouts. Although nearly three hours long, the production moves smoothly and naturally, yet with a certain urgency, like the war itself. Catharine Young and Sydney Dufka have fashioned an array of authentic-looking period costumes, the most creative showing up during the Act 2 Thanksgiving show. Created out of parachutes, mosquito netting and fabric that looks like newspaper comics, these clever designers have infused this production with pops of inventiveness and color.
There is so much to recommend in this gorgeous, theme-driven production. The cast is perfection, the orchestra is 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.
Light Opera Works production of “South Pacific” runs through August 30 at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston. More information and tickets are available online here or by calling 847-920-5360. Additional reviews by Colin Douglas may be read at www.theatreinchicago.com.