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Themes of 'South Pacific' are more timely than ever

March 28, 2018 at 7:26 PM

Original Article: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-ppn-drury-south-pacific-st-0405-20180328-story.html

Amilestone Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that's as timely today as when it was first staged comes to Drury Lane this spring.

"South Pacific" is a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Tales From the South Pacific" by James Michener. It is being directed at Drury Lane by Victor Malana Maog.

Performances are at 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m Fridays, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 6 p.m. Sundays April 5 to June 17.

"South Pacific" is about an American nurse named Nellie Forbush (Samantha Hill) stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II. She falls in love with Emile De Becque (Bob Cuccioli), a middle-aged French plantation owner, but has serious misgivings upon learning he's the father of two mixed-race children.

 

This is Maog's first time working with the show.

"I first met the play on cassette tapes when I was a little kid," he said. "Early on I saw the movie and the first live stage production was a community theater version I think I saw in high school. And of course I found it atrocious and boring."

He eventually had a change of heart.

"When I got beyond the beautiful music and the dance numbers of the cassette tapes, the old-school enchantment, and I reached a certain level of personal maturity and personal interest, I started to see the themes that were actually in the play," he said. "This thing I thought was a happy, singing, dancing musical started to speak to me in a way that I couldn't have understood as a young child. I also started to understand the bravery of Rodgers and Hammerstein in presenting this work in 1949."

The songs were on the radio and they were the hits of the day but there was a lot of criticism around the messaging of that song, "You Have to Be Carefully Taught" that asks the audience to think about the way that they were raised and their own biases, he said.

"When it toured in the '50s there were lawmakers in Georgia who didn't want that song in the play, who didn't believe in the concept of half-breeds," he said. "So even though it was incredibly popular to have all these songs played through on every radio station … there were people who didn't want to have anything to do with this musical."

He's asked his young cast to thoroughly research the time period and the events of the day.

"One of the things I think is most important is that even though this is a fictional musical, based on a fictional book, the men and women that we are portraying is 100 percent real," he said. "People really died. People really fell in love and people have really risked things across time. It's sort of the complexities of the human being during war time. Those are the details we're trying to honor and have sympathy for."

During auditions, he was looking for actors who could certainly sing the famous songs and dance the dances, but people who weren't afraid to be in a creation process, he said.

"We're discovering 'South Pacific,' meaning I want the cast to really tap into their humanity and not just put on a show but try to create an investigation and immersion in the world of the play, and also understand their own place and ideas of brotherhood, patriotism, where we are in our own blind spots and prejudices," he said. "That's a special sort of actor who can actually take a deep dive into the seams of the play. I was looking for a very special type of artist who could not only perform the entertainment but go into the deep psychological and emotional life. And I found them."

The cast includes a group of "very special people," he said, that have come together to create something magical, he said.

"We're hoping to create such a detailed story that can only be seen in Chicago," he said. "I've already heard people are traveling to come see this production because of so many elements. From the casting of Bob Cuccioli and Samantha Hill to having Otis Sallid, who is one of the most well-known choreographers in the industry, both in Hollywood and Broadway circles — he created 'Smoky Joe's Cafe' —that it's a really interesting and dynamic mix of folks who have come together to put on this Drury Lane 'South Pacific.' It's a very rare combination of folks."

Not only does he think the message of "South Pacific" still rings true today, he thinks it's the reason to do the play.

"This 1949 musical seems very alive today. It's like the ghosts of the past are telling us something about our current state of 2018," he said. "I wish personally that the themes of this play or the circumstances of the play were obsolete. But if you look around all sorts of corners of the newspaper we're still dealing with a certain type of bigotry, we're still dealing with a certain sense of 'us and them,' and I do hope when people watch the play, I hope they understand that in 1949, this musical came to be that told us how we can chose love over our own prejudices. I find it incredibly relevant still."

He hopes audiences will find the play and have a meaningful time, he said.

"I think the audiences will absolutely fall in love with the romance of the piece. I think they will also be taken by the bravery of the writing and also the well-tailored performances of the actors," he said. "I hope to sweep them away into the South Pacific but also, in our time onstage, let them feel all the feelings that the musical challenges them to feel."

Annie Alleman is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.

'South Pacific'

When: April 5-June 17

Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace

Tickets: $47-$62

Information: 630-530-0111; www.drurylanetheatre.com