Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace has opened its 2018-19 Season with “South Pacific,” the Broadway hit which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950 for tackling the issue of prejudice.
The leading roles are notably cast with Broadway stars Robert Cuccioli (“Jekyll & Hyde”) and Samantha Hill (2013 revival of “Les Miserables”).
Seventy years ago, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein along with director Joshua Logan adapted James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Tales of the South Pacific” into a musical they believed would be a financial success and send a strong progressive message about racism. It won 10 Tony Awards and played 1,925 performances.
The story features a group of American nurses and Seabees stationed on an island in the South Pacific during World War II. A self-described hick from Little Rock, Ensign Nellie Forbush (Hill) becomes romantically involved with an older local plantation owner, Emile de Becque (Cuccioli).
The looming war motivates him to quickly propose marriage. Nellie agrees until she learns he has two mixed-race children with his Polynesian wife, now deceased. She struggles with her prejudice with which she believes she was born.
One of the love-starved Seabees, petty officer and savvy entrepreneur Luther Billis (Matt Crowle), is outsmarted by Bloody Mary (Yvonne Strumecki), a Tonkinese vendor from the neighboring island Bali Ha’i. When handsome, brave, young Lt. Joe Cable (Austin Colby) arrives, she introduces him to her daughter, Liat (Sarah Lo), for the purpose of marriage. In light of the current #MeToo movement, their initial meeting seems disturbingly predatory. Cable falls in love with Liat, but realizes he is unable to take a dark-skinned bride home to his wealthy family.
As a musical drama, “South Pacific” features lengthy book scenes as well as extended musical sequences. The direction by Victor Malana Maog sometimes lacks focus and veers toward the melodramatic. This production would benefit emotionally from less enthusiasm and more finesse.
Matt Crowle gives a zany, unique performance and is a worthy successor to the long line of clowns who have taken on the role of Billis.
Drury Lane’s production is lavishly produced. The spectacular scenic design by Scott Davis lends weight to the show. His settings are gloriously lit by Yael Lubetzky.
Although most of the costumes are khaki uniforms, designer Olivera Gajic gets to inject some color and fun into the nurses’ beachwear and the Thanksgiving Follies. “Honey Bun” is a welcome, amusing musical comedy number in the midst of the drama and features clever costumes and comic choreography (Otis Sallid).
Richard Rodgers created a rich, diverse score including soaring operatic melodies for de Becque, exuberant Hit Parade tunes for Nellie, the exotic “Bai Ha’i” for Bloody Mary, the jazzy “Honey Bun”, as well as more traditional musical comedy numbers for the Seabees. With musical direction by Roberta Duchak, Strumecki’s vocal power and prowess make her stand out in a field of first-rate vocalists (Hill, Cuccioli and Colby).
This visually and vocally remarkable revival of an American musical theatre classic continues through June 17.
• Richard Pahl has worked as an actor and director for more than 40 years. While serving two terms on Elgin’s Cultural Arts Commission, he produced its Page To Stage play reading series. He recently directed “Spinning Into Butter” for Janus Theatre and “Making God Laugh” at Steel Beam Theatre. He will be directing a staged reading of Sean Grennan’s new play “Peggy’s Birth Day” at SBT.