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Light Opera winningly rides the waves of ‘South Pacific’

The musicals of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein have been part of the DNA of several generations of theatergoers, but many of today’s Broadway fans have not seen most of their shows performed live and backed by a full orchestra. And the familiarity of their songs can make it easy to forget just how powerfully they addressed such enduring matters as prejudice, war, politics and romance.

‘SOUTH PACIFIC’

Highly recommended

When: Through Aug. 30

Where: Light Opera Works at

Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston

Tickets: $34 – $94

Info: (847) 920-5360; www.LightOperaWorks.com

Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission

Light Opera Works’ fine revival of “South Pacific” is an instant corrective. It also is a vivid reminder of how this 1949 musical — with its book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan based on James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning  “Tales of the South Pacific” — not only captured the spirit of Americans deployed far from home during World War II, but dealt with the issue of lingering racism in the United States.

At the heart of “South Pacific,” which ideally blends the personal and the global, there is the sense that everyone is either running away from something in life, or running toward something. And during a war, when the awareness of mortality is so heightened, that race only assumes added intensity.

The story is set on a South Seas island inhabited largely by French planters and the native women, many of them have taken for wives. Encamped there in wartime are members of the U.S. Navy and the Seabees, their team of construction workers.

Sara Larson and Larry Adams star in "South Pacific." (Photo: Rich Foreman)

Sara Larson and Larry Adams star in “South Pacific.” (Photo: Rich Foreman)

Emile de Becque (Larry Adams, whose lustrous voice and easeful acting are ideal for this role) is a planter with a complex history — a sophisticated middle-aged man raising two children after the death of his Polynesian wife. He quickly becomes smitten with Ensign Nellie Forbush (Sarah Larson),  a nurse who describes herself as a “hick” from Little Rock, Arkansas — a place whose legacy of racism is rooted in her in ways she has never been forced to confront. With her superb voice and dancing skills, and her natural approach to character, Larson deftly avoids the cuteness that can sometimes undermine portrayals of Nellie. She is the real deal.

Justin Adair as Lt. Cable and Victoria M. Ng as Liat in 'South Pacific." (Photo: Mona Luan)

Justin Adair as Lt. Cable and Victoria M. Ng as Liat in ‘South Pacific.” (Photo: Mona Luan)

Another romance unfolds through the machinations of “Bloody Mary” (Yvonne Strumecki in a portrait full of quicksilver mood swings), the boisterous Tonkinese businesswoman who has profited from the arrival of the military. When Lt. Joseph Cable (Justin Adair), a young, handsome Princeton grad and Marine arrives on the island to plan an intelligence mission, she quickly arranges a meeting between him and the doll-like beauty Liat (Victoria M. Ng), who turns out to be her daughter. Again, the sparks fly, but many things interfere with a happy ending here. Adair, another veteran of intimate stages, uses his golden voice and straightforward acting style to great effect here, and Ng’s delicate presence and charming body language are most alluring.

Adding comic flair throughout is Luther Billis, the Seabee with a hunger for mischief and “projects,” played with panache by Brian Zane. His cohorts sing and dance up a storm in “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” with Nellie’s fellow nurses cavorting winningly in shorts.

Director-choreographer Rudy Hogenmiller is not an innovator, but he is a polished pro with a strong sense of casting, and he pays attention to audibility so every word and lyric is crystal clear. Adam Veness’ elaborate sets capture the mood of both paradise and war. And Roger L. Bingaman sees to the rest, conducting a first-rate orchestra in a score that moves from the operatic “Some Enchanted Evening” to the searing “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Brian Zane plays Luther Billis and Yvonne Strumecki is "Bloody Mary" in "South Pacific." (Photo: Mona Luan)

Brian Zane plays Luther Billis and Yvonne Strumecki is “Bloody Mary” in “South Pacific.” (Photo: Mona Luan)