"South Pacific" - ★ ★ ★
At nearly 70 years old, it's amazing how well "South Pacific" holds up. The 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical wows on a number of fronts, especially in director Victor Malana Maog's solid revival for Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.
How many other shows feature so many original songs that have become as deeply ingrained into America's cultural consciousness? "Some Enchanted Evening," "There is Nothing Like a Dame" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" are just a few of "South Pacific's" tuneful numbers (in Act I alone!) that capture the storytelling genius of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.
And though "South Pacific" is essentially a paean to the regular folks who filled the ranks of World War II's victorious Allied forces, script authors Hammerstein and Josh Logan (inspired by James A. Michener's novel "Tales of the South Pacific") didn't shy away from that generation's flaws. Racist views of the time threaten to derail the two major romantic relationships of "South Pacific."
Broadway veterans Samantha Hill ("The Phantom of the Opera") and Robert Cuccioli (a Tony Award-nominee for "Jekyll & Hyde") headline the cast. Yet it's Hill who is far more at home in the shoes of Ensign Nellie Forbush. A self-proclaimed "little hick" from Little Rock, Arkansas, Nellie is conflicted by the romantic wooing of French plantation owner Emile de Becque; Hill shows how much of a performing pro she is with effortless Southern charm.
Cuccioli certainly has the necessary leading-man looks and voice to match as de Becque. Though on opening night, Cuccioli seemed tentative and stiff in the opening scene -- it's as if he was bracing himself to scale the treacherous operatic heights of the big romantic number "Some Enchanted Evening." Cuccioli's booming Act II ballad "This Nearly was Mine" was more secure and confident, even if his French accent did go AWOL.
Additional amazing singing comes from Yvonne Strumecki as the aspirant Tonkinese merchant Bloody Mary, who casts a vocal spell with the song "Bali Ha'i." The mystical moment is also a great opportunity for lighting designer Yael Lubetzky to show off with plenty of palm tree-dappled shadows and saturated color.
As the hunky marine Lt. Joe Cable, Austin Colby makes it easy to see why Bloody Mary targets his character as a potential husband for her daughter, Liat (Sarah Lo). Colby brings a boyish vulnerability to his role and the tender tenor ballad "Younger Than Springtime."
And when it comes to comic relief, Matt Crowle deploys a number of funny flourishes as the weaselly navy Seabee Luther Billis. Some of Crowle's more memorable comedy tactics range from clacking his teeth to donning island drag to show off his undulating tattooed belly.
With a dedicated ensemble, director Maog oversees a fluid staging amid the moving palms and sand dunes in Scott Davis' breezy island sets. Costume designer Olivera Gajic and choreographer Otis Sallid also work well in tandem to create the right look of idling service members who get motivated to burst into dance when the right mood overtakes them.
Now if "South Pacific" were written today, its authors would face criticism about perpetuating the tired Hollywood practice of romantically pairing an older man with a much younger woman. The musical also wouldn't score high with the basic feminist "Bechdel Test," since Nellie has so few onstage friendships or conversations with her fellow female nurses on topics other than men.
Yet "South Pacific" is reflective of its era when America was riding high in postwar confidence. It will likely remain a beloved relic, thriving long after living memories of World War II die out.
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Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630) 530-0111 or drurylanetheatre.com
Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday; 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday; through June 17
Tickets: $47-$62; senior discounts and dinner with show packages available
Running time: About 2 hours, 35 minutes, including intermission
Parking: Free adjacent parking garage and pay valet service
Rating: Some sexuality, but largely for general audiences