Chicago Theater Review: SOUTH PACIFIC (Light Opera Works in Evanston)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 16, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Whenever it’s revived, it’s hard to imagine a more necessary musical than this 1949 Pulitzer Prize winner. Seventy years after the Japanese surrender, it remains a healing tribute to resilience in adversity and tolerance in the thick of war. Consummate showmen, Rodgers and Hammerstein knew just why Americans need to believe in themselves and what threatens that faith. A “cock-eyed optimist” from Little Rock, stationed with the Seabees in the Pacific, overcomes unnatural prejudices to love an older man, a French planter who married a Polynesian woman. Nellie’s small victory for her own humanity is the kind of good we want to believe can come from war.

South Pacific

Only one week elapses in this noble “musical play” but it’s enough: Rodgers and Hammerstein fuel the seemingly unstoppable action with very human impulses–to survive, to love, to make a difference. Never far from death even in the outlying islands of the Pacific campaign, four lovers count only on the moment: Nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush from Little Rock, so naïve she’s pure Americana, must forget her prejudiced past and her lover’s former marriage. Middle-aged French planter Emile de Becque knows that this late-blooming romance is his second chance in life. Idealistic Princeton grad Lt. John Cable tests his tolerance when he adores Bloody Mary’s beautiful daughter Liat. The musical wonders: If these characters can’t rise above their lesser selves, what‘s the point of the larger war they’re fighting?

Emile, who left France because he couldn’t abide bullies, faces the biggest ones of all–but, to protect his newfound love, he initially refuses to use his knowledge of the archipelago’s islands to spy on Japanese cargo and troop ships. His hesitation puts his humanity in question. Does love cancel out all other obligations or will Emile discover, as Arthur Miller’s cost-cutting dad does in All My Sons, that our greatest duty may be, not to family and simple survival, but to our sense of decency and democracy? (Troublingly, as if to prove that no good deed goes unpunished, when de Becque embarks on what seems a suicide mission, he abandons his children a bit too readily.)

South Pacific

Another magnificent reclamation effort by Light Opera Works, Rudy Hogenmiller’s all-embracing, nearly three-hour staging delivers everything but the vista of Bali H’ai’s twin peaks floating in the distance. Restoring the full orchestration, it simply revives a landmark musical to the glory it must get. Rodgers’ inexhaustibly wonderful score ranges from the vaudevillian panache of “Honey Bun” to the simple grace of “Dites-Moi Pourquois.” At times the music delivers the unspoken, as with the interior monologue of “This I How It Feels” and “Twin Soliloquies.”

South Pacific

Cleanly presented, James Michener’s very inevitable story rises to every occasion. A worthy successor to Ezio Pinza, Rossano Brazzi and Robert Goulet, Larry Adams’ Emile (a role he perfected on this stage nine years before), as much an actor as singer, delivers the aching yearning in “Some Enchanted Evening” and the heartbreak in “This Nearly Was Mine.” Sarah Larson, echoing Mary Martin and Mitzi Gaynor, is the all-American girl next door as Nellie moves from unforced sweetness (in that perfect waltz “A Wonderful Guy”) to the defensive insouciance of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair” to the equally unforced nobility of the moving ending. The owner of a thrilling tenor, Justin Adair’s Lt. Joseph Cable acts through every note, his “Younger Than Springtime” as ardent as his “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”–Hammerstein’s unanswerable diagnosis of bigotry–is timeless. (You just wish that Cable had the courage of the anger as he sings how racism corrupts innocence.)

South PacificEmbracing a roguish role that immediately recalls the wily Islamic peddler in Oklahoma!, Brian Zane schemes and dreams as the ever opportunistic Seabee Luther Billis, whose drag turn in the Thanksgiving Follies shakes the grass skirts and brings down the house. Bloody Mary is mysteriously merry in Yvonne Strumecki’s Tonkinese troubadour (also in the 2006 production), wise in the ways of inarticulate love as she plays with “Happy Talk.” Her extra-exotic “Bali Ha’i” is a travelogue in itself.

Whether Lindy Hopping or Jitterbugging, the large chorus of sailors and nurses captivate as much as convince. Catherine Young and Sydney Dukfa deliver superb time-traveling, culture-contrasting costumes, and Andrew H. Meyers offers dramatic lighting throughout. Adam Veness’s evocative set employs an appropriately curtain of parachute silk to frame postcard vistas of the Pacific. His overarching tropical canopy delivers a free trip to paradise. Cahn Auditorium just became a destination vacation.

Some enchanted evening indeed.

photos by Mona Luan

South Pacific
Light Opera Works
Cahn Auditorium
600 Emerson Street in Evanston
ends on August 30, 2015
for tickets, call (847) 920-5360 or visit Light Opera Works

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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