BWW Review: SOUTH PACIFIC at Drury Lane Theatre
Boasting an all-star cast, beautiful design, and a beloved score, Drury Lane Theatre's SOUTH PACIFIC provides a truly enchanting evening of theatre - both entertaining and thought-provoking as it addresses sobering themes such as racism and bigotry.
Robert Cuccioli and Samantha Hill star as Emile de Becque, the widowed French expatriate, and Nellie Forbush, the playful nurse from Arkansas who is stationed on a World War II Navy base. Hill, best known for originating the role of Cosette in the 2013 Broadway revival of Les Misérables, brings a girlish sense of fun to classics such as "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair". She balances this levity with a mature character arc as Nellie comes to terms with her own prejudices regarding Emile's previous relationship with a Polynesian woman. Tony nominee Cuccioli charms as Emile de Becque, Nellie's middle-aged suitor who shows a tender side with his young children (Rika Nishikawa and Hunter DiMailig).
Among a strong ensemble cast, a standout performance is Yvonne Strumecki as Bloody Mary. A comedic character early in the show, Bloody Mary is later the driving force behind a second plot line related to racial tensions, as she desperately tries to marry her daughter Liat (Sarah Lo) to the American Lieutenant Joseph Cable (Austin Colby). Cable struggles to reconcile his feelings for Liat with his reluctance to bring a non-white foreigner home as his wife, in a trope that brings to mind similarly tragic tales such as MADAME BUTTERFLY and MISS SAIGON. Although the revelation comes too late for Liat and Lt. Cable, he sings the lyrics that proved controversial when the musical premiered in pre-Civil Rights America: "You've got to be taught to hate and fear."
The diverse characters of SOUTH PACIFIC are treated with care by director Victor Malana Maog - who was born in the Philippines - in partnership with choreographer Otis Sallid and the rest of the creative team. Maog acknowledges that many of these characters' voices are limited by the source material, saying in his program notes that he aims "to honor the humanity and fight of the men and women both in the center and in the dark, unspoken spaces of this landmark musical." Indeed, many of the non-white characters, such as Liat, barely speak at all, and their stories are largely told through the lenses of the white characters surrounding them. This narrow range of perspectives makes SOUTH PACIFIC feel quite dated now, although it was a progressive musical for its time. Despite these limitations, is encouraging to see a diverse creative team at the helm of the production.
Overall, SOUTH PACIFIC is a beautifully rendered version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. The lead performances, under musical direction by Roberta Duchak, are not to be missed. The design - in particular Scott Davis' scenic design, Yael Lubetzy's lighting design, and Olivera Gajic's costume design - sweeps the viewer into a lovely, though troubled, paradise.
SOUTH PACIFIC runs through June 17 at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL 60181. Tickets are available at drurylanetheatre.com or 630-530-0111.
Photo credit: Brett Beiner