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THEATER REVIEW South Pacific
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2018-04-18

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Playwright: Rodgers & Hammerstein ( music/lyrics/book ) and Joshua Logan ( book )

At: Drury Lane Theatre ( Oakbrook Terrace ) Tickets: 630-530-0111; DruryLaneTheatre.com; $47-$62. Runs through: June 17

Wherever U.S. military men and women fight bullies today—Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and The Niger ( and wherever else secretly )—they are discouraged from intimate involvement with the locals ... but sometimes it happens. Oops! I mean, our troops fighting in French Polynesia during World War II were discouraged from intimate involvement with locals, but sometimes it happened.

This Rodgers & Hammerstein classic will be 70 years old in 2019, yet its emotional and social stories remain regrettably pertinent and fresh, with racism central to the two love stories ( one ending happily and the other not ). Perhaps resonating more than ever before is the commanding officer's remark that he cannot promise a better world if the United States wins, but he know it will be worse if the country loses.

This production mostly sparkles on the strength of superior musical values. All principal voices are golden and knock the famous Rodgers & Hammerstein songs outta' the park under musical director Roberta Duchak. The eight-person orchestra also sounds richly full under conductor Christopher Sargent, with outstanding keyboard programming by Ethan Deppe replicating the score's significant harp part and full string section ( supplementing one real violin ). I question a tempo here or there, but that certainly most people—especially if they have never have seen South Pacific.

As expat French plantation owner Emile de Becque, powerful baritone Robert Cuccioli has the looks, stature and voice and sings his gorgeous songs with ease. De Becque is fervent and gracious but a bit stolid, but that's the writing and not the playing. As his inamorata, U.S. nurse Nellie Forbush, Samantha Hill projects down-to-earth charm with all the appropriate emotional nuances. Austin Colby has good looks to spare and a strong, lyrical tenor voice as doomed All-American Boy Joe Cable. As Bloody Mary, the colorful Tonkinese entrepreneur, Yvonne Strumecki is utterly sterling and to the manor born. In the comic role of Luther Billis, Matt Crowle is a deserved crowd favorite who nonetheless never overplays and also offers nuance, especially at the end.

It's not an outstanding dance show, but Otis Sallid's choreography does what it needs to do, especially in comedy numbers such as "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" and "Honey Bun." Director Victor Malana Maog grasps the material strongly and moves things briskly and cleanly, but three times during intimate songs he annoyingly separates the singer from the person being sung to, which weakens the moment.

FYI: Even cutting one song ( "My Girl Back Home" ) and one dance sequence, South Pacific runs almost three hours. ( The Drury Lane website says it's two hours and 25 minutes. ) It's never been a short show, but it's never been more worthwhile.


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