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Chicago by John Olson

South Pacific
Cadillac Palace Theatre

Also see John's reviews of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Show Boat

South Pacific
Cathy Foy-Mahi and Ensemble
When director Bartlett Sher brought South Pacific back to Broadway for its first full-scale revival ever, the production was universally judged to be a revelation. Though one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's biggest hits, it had pretty much fallen from the standard repertoire. Sher made the case that the musical was not only producible but one of the greatest musicals of the so-golden era. His vision is delivered mostly intact by the second national touring company, which opened in Chicago for a two-week run on February 16th. It's been directed by Sher's longtime associate (and his co-director for the Lincoln Center's Broadway production) Sarna Lapine, and Christopher Gattelli's musical staging has been recreated for the tour by the Broadway revival's associate choreographer Joe Langworth. So, although this is a non-Equity tour delivered by a new producer (NETworks), it's still the real deal. The production is somewhat downsized from the Broadway version, but smartly so. The ensemble is reduced from 22 to 17 and the pit orchestra is down to a traditional touring size of nine players. Michael Yeargan's sets still provide an effective suggestion of the islands and World War II military facilities. The only deletion from the Broadway production I noticed (but didn't miss) was the big plane that had been on stage.

While this is a non-Equity cast, there's little difference in ability from most Equity touring companies. The performers, without exception from the leads through the ensemble, sing the score beautifully while their acting and movement range from good enough to equal to their Broadway counterparts. Filling the shoes of Paulo Szot, the Brazilian operatic baritone who won a Tony for his portrayal of Emile de Becque, is Marcelo Guzzo, a golden-voiced Uruguayan baritone from the opera world. Acting-wise, his portrayal of de Becque is a little wooden in the early scenes but he warms up and provides intense emotions by the time he gets to his big moment of "This Nearly Was Mine" in act two. Guzzo reads believably as 44 as the script states, but no older (and I would guess his real age is younger than that). His leading lady is Chicagoan Jennie Sophia, newly promoted from understudy to lead for this engagement. She too is a little stiff initially (though in fairness to both Sophia and Guzzo, the characters are both feeling awkward in the scene, so intentionally or not, it sort of works). Sophia has a wonderful mezzo-soprano that does the songs justice. Her Nellie feels authentically "hick" enough to be from 1940s Arkansas, though she doesn't, for me, deliver all the warmth we're to believe makes Nellie so lovable.

Shane Donovan, a handsome and capable tenor with the appropriate WASP-ish looks, is a good choice for the Philadelphia Mainliner Lt. Joe Cable. Cable has always seemed to be an underwritten character—a little too stoic and heroic in a Gary Cooperish way—and Donovan doesn't fare any better than most actors in filling Cable out. There are no qualifiers, though, on the performances of Christian Marriner as Billis and Cathy Foy-Mahi as Bloody Mary. They both have the musical comedy presence and comic skills to put over their characters. Foy-Mahi has more than that, giving Mary a dark side in her willingness to in essence pimp-out her young daughter Liat (an expressive Hsin-Yu Liao) to Lt. Cable. Marriner and Foy-Mahi both compare well to most anyone who's done these roles, including their Tony-nominated Broadway counterparts.

The arrival of South Pacific in Chicago just as Lyric Opera is performing Show Boat is giving audiences have an unusual opportunity to study musical theater history, in particular the advances in the form attributed to librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. While Hammerstein is credited with pioneering integration of song and story and providing social commentary in Show Boat, South Pacific shows how far he was able to take the genre in the 22 years between the premieres of these two shows. Show Boat still followed convention by including some numbers whose purpose seemed to be purely entertainment, rather than furthering the narrative, but every one of South Pacific's songs advance the story or add insight into characters. The songs have become such standards it's easy to forget how a classic like "Some Enchanted Evening" flows logically from the dialogue and contributes to the story: it's de Becque's explanation for moving so quickly on Nellie. Their paths have crossed due to the war and she could be transferred to another post at any moment. There's no time to risk a lengthy courtship. In Sher's directorial concept, the characters are played realistically, giving sufficient weight to their anxiety and confusion resulting from both their physical danger and their forced immersion into a new and foreign culture.

Also, current events give South Pacific additional resonance. Our country has been touched directly by war in the past decade and economic uncertainty has added to our fears. In this context, a song like "A Cockeyed Optimist" is not merely an upbeat showtune; it's a needed anthem to maintaining hope. And the increased racial and ethnic diversity of American and European societies gives "Carefully Taught" new resonance. Show Boat, as spectacular and entertaining as it is performed by Lyric Opera, is somewhere between classic and museum piece, while South Pacific has contemporary parallels. The modest compromises that have been made by NETworks to bring this musical to audiences across the country, many in one-night stops serving smaller cities, are well justified to bring South Pacific to the audience it deserves and reclaim its place as one of the very best American musicals.

South Pacific will play the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago, through February 26, 2012. For ticket information, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com or call 800-775-2000. For more information on the touring production, visit www.southpacificontour.com/.


Photo provided by Broadway in Chicago


-- John Olson



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