In the 20 years since Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace last staged “South Pacific,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic has taken on freight that simply didn’t exist (for many of us anyway) during the 1998 production.
Back then, few took issue with the fact that the only two Asian women on stage were Liat, a child who only opens her mouth to make out with the Navy lieutenant her mother has told her to sleep with, and Bloody Mary, an impoverished woman trying to feed her family by selling grass skirts, “shrunken heads” and her daughter to the Americans. The daughter comes with a hefty price tag: You’re supposed to agree to keep her.
When: Through June 17
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Ln., Oakbrook Terrace
Tickets: $47-$62; dinner theater packages, $64-$85
Run time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, one intermission
Then, there’s one of the leading characters, a displaced French plantation owner who, early on, gives an impassioned speech about all men being equal, no matter their color. This is a character who ends the show as he began it — with an Asian servant to babysit and clear the dishes on command. As a much younger man, he also killed a guy, but the guy was a bully nobody liked, so no worries.
Under director Victor Malana Maog’s new staging for the Drury Lane, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lush-as-jasmine-in-high-summer score has never sounded more beautiful. There’s a reason “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Hai” and “Wonderful Guy” are classics. They’re harmonically perfect. As long as you disregard some of the lyrics (which range from heteronormative to misogynistic, sometimes in the same song), you’ll never hear anything more beautiful.
Here’s what’s sublime about the production: the sound of Ensign Nellie Forbush (Samantha Hill) and Emile De Becque (Robert Cuccioli) dueting on “Some Enchanted Evening.” Bloody Mary (Yvonne Strumecki) closing the mesmerizing “Bali Hai” with a single note that seems to hover in the air like a jewel. The growly firepower of the all-male chorus of “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame.”
Music director Roberta Duchak has created a swoon-worthy sound from start to finish.
The cast, too, is wonderful. Cuccioli has a sonorous bass that’s like wrap-around velvet, especially on tortured weepers like “This Nearly Was Mine.”
Hill’s Nellie Forbush is a capable singer with a presence as perky as a shampoo commercial. Nellie’s notions about race form the backbone of the plot, and Hill does a credible job showing their slow evolution.
As Lt. Joe Cable, Austin Colby is a man you know far outranks the others even when they’re not in uniform. He also delivers “Younger than Springtime” so gloriously that you forgive the fact that Lt. Cable’s love song is sung to a girl he’s never actually talked to and who is pretty clearly unable to give consent in this situation.
“South Pacific’ was radical for its time — hugely so. The flashpoint comes in “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” a song that calls out racism with superb ferocity. When Cable and DeBecque sing that racism is learned rather than inherent, the moment is electric. (It is alas followed by a scene in which a character with a much bigger part than Cable ends the show as racist as he started it. But the audience is expected to overlook that and empathize as he heads off to war.)
No matter how musically rich, “South Pacific” has some problems because it remains frozen in time. Maog doesn’t have solutions for them. Maybe nobody does.
Catey Sullivan is a freelance writer.