By Barry Reszel
If for no other reason than to thumb its producer’s personified proboscis at the petulant pundit who promoted the always-meant-to-be-campy Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to musical theatre paragon with his scathing Chicago Tribune criticism of its clever re-imagination this winter, Drury Lane Theatre should have considered a similar approach to Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.
Just imagine the students of Bali High in the throes of their annual musicale. These Gen Zers intelligently comment on issues of sexism, war, prostituting one’s own child, blatant racism and widowed fathers of small children who think nothing of risking their lives for a cause (“But don’t ask me to do the same for a hot nurse I met two weeks ago”). All the while their own rendition of the second-ever Best Musical Tony (1950) unfolds around their insightful teen commentary. It’s a remake concept simply pregnant with possibilities.
Alas, this is a treatment for another day. Because on the heels of two insightful, modern interpretations of vintage titles (Jeff Award, Best Large Production Musical front runner 42nd Street was the other), in the case of this South Pacific, Drury Lane plays it straight. And with talented Filipino Director Victor Malana Maog‘s powerhouse cast led by Broadway stars and Chicagoland’s best physical comic actor in Matthew Crowle, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Remember that South Pacific is an old-time Rodgers and Hammerstein standard (read everything you ever wanted to know about the show, including a plot summary, here). It was written for post-Depression-era audience members expecting a whole lot for their entertainment dollars calculated by their hourly rate. Which is to say, this is a long show by today’s patrons’ attention spans (think gnat and add 30 seconds).
As such, it puts particular demand on the actors playing the cockeyed optimist from Little Rock who matures several lifetimes over two and a half hours, Ensign Nellie Forbush, the show’s leading lady, and the spiritual leader of the military unit assigned to the area, Seabee Luther Billis, who is, thankfully, at the center of every scene involving the naval corps. These are the two assigned to keep the central action moving, in spite of the built-in speed bumps personified in other characters and whimsical sub-plots.
Far exceeding all expectations is Winnipeg native Samantha Hill, who’s been on Broadway as Christine in Phantom of the Opera and Cosette in Les Misérables. As Nellie, she captures the best of Southern innocence and charm wrapped in a self-aware pragmatism that allows the audience to evolve with her character. Patrons find her adorable, confused, disappointing and ultimately heroic in her growth and resolve to undo her “carefully taught” racism.
One gets the sense from Hill’s Nellie that her own racist bent was never really previously considered, it was just the way things were. But, after sleeping on it for a night or two and giving it some real consideration, romantic love and embracing childhood innocence win out over groundless hate. Duh. Decision made.
Along the journey, Hill, a veritable nightingale…err whippoorwill, gorgeously works through some of the best numbers in a glorious songbook. “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “A Wonderful Guy,” “Honey Bun” and a riveting reprise of “Some Enchanted Evening” are a handful of the highlights.
As Luther Billis, Crowle’s every action is a theatre master class. Each movement he makes is with character-enhancing purpose, and Billis’ key purpose is to inject humor and keep the pace of a long show moving. And yes, his leading “Nothing Like a Dame” and signature contribution in “Honey Bun” are all they must be.
Tony nominee Robert Cuccioli (Jekyll and Hyde) as the middle-aged Frenchman Emile de Becque, looking for love to share his unconventional island life, deserves his “Some Enchanted Evening” on a cast recording (with “This Nearly Was Mine” on the b-side). Initially, his Emile feels a bit stern for an older man receiving new affection from a beautiful younger woman. But in the days the story and his story unfold, he earns the audience’s respect with an unapologetic adherence to those things that are right (aside from the character’s disregard for the importance of fatherhood, but that’s on the book writers).
That’s important, because the real takeaway from this show is its unabashed look at racial intolerance that must leave its audience changed—groundbreaking in 1949 when the show was first produced on Broadway and equally relevant today.
The subplot of Marine Lt. Joseph Cable (the ridiculously handsome Austin Colby) falling in love with young, Tonkinese Liat (Sarah Lo), further touches the key theme and, as importantly, gives the Drury Lane audience opportunity to hear Colby’s glorious rendition of the showstopping ballad “Younger Than Springtime” as well as the integral “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”
This songbook is an aficionado’s Spotify playlist that must set a musical theatre record for number of reprises. Highlights not previously mentioned include the mesmerizing “Bali Ha’I” and cheery “Happy Talk” (gorgeously sung by Yvonne Strumecki reprising her role of Bloody Mary on the national tour).
Music Director Roberta Duchak and Choreographer Otis Sallid are at the top of their games showing off this 17-time Tony Award-winning show, including Best Musical in 1950 and Best Musical Revival in 2008.
All said, while it may not be the students of Bali High doing the enticing, make time for an escape to the warm breeze of Drury Lane’s South Pacific this spring, where the lure of Bali Ha’i beckons, “Come away…Come away.”
Drury Lane Theatre presents “South Pacific” through June 17 at 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. More information and tickets are available here. See our reviews of Drury Lane’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” here and of the company’s “42nd Street” production here. Photos by Brett Beiner.