Meet Ensign Nellie Forbush, the all-American heroine in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “South Pacific.” Pretty, plucky and unpretentious, this little lady from Little Rock learns a lot about life and love while overseas during World War II.
For starters, she falls for a suave, middle-aged French expatriate with baggage. But since Nellie is, as the song says, “a cockeyed optimist,” she immediately forgives him for murdering a man in his past. Yet draws the line when she learns he was married to a Polynesian woman.
Yeah, Nellie is a racist, as are her fellow military men.
“It’s not every day that a theater is brave enough to go into the complexity of race, patriotism and loss,” says Victor Malana Maog, the director of Drury Lane Theatre’s new production of “South Pacific.”
As with “The Sound of Music” and “The King and I,” composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (who co-wrote the play’s book with Joshua Logan, based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific”) explore racism and bigotry, specifically in the show’s song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” (to hate).
The Tony Award-winning songbook also includes lighthearted numbers (“Honey Bun,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” “A Wonderful Guy,” “Happy Talk”) and hauntingly romantic ballads (“Some Enchanted Evening,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” “Younger Than Springtime,” “Bali Ha’i”).
If the titles don’t ring a bell, the melodies will since nearly every song in “South Pacific” is a hit. And these showtunes sound spectacular per Roberta Duchak’s musical direction, the production’s live orchestra conducted by Christopher Sargent, and a stellar cast.
Boasting a little Miley Cyrus sass and Cary Grant class, respectively, Broadway’s Samantha Hill and Tony Award nominee Robert Cuccioli are superb in the lead roles. They, like Yvonne Strumecki (Bloody Mary), deserve Jeff Award nominations for rich performances that convey the complexity of their characters and the arcs (particularly for Nellie) they achieve.
The supporting players, including straight man Elic Bramlett (Capt. George Brackett) and comic relief Matt Crowle (Luther Billis), are also excellent, though some of the latter’s lines could be cut since they don’t forward the plot.
However, this is a minor flaw in a fine show that flows seamlessly from scene to scene thanks to the atmospheric sets of Scott Davis, which are neither overdone nor clunky. Equally first-rate is Otis Sallid’s choreography, Olivera Gajic’s costumes, lighting by Yael Lubetzky, and sound by Ray Nardelli.
“Drury Lane has invited this team to create a soaring production that allows for the seduction of the music and the frolic in the numbers, but also allows us to be as fearless as we can be about R&H’s themes of racism and bigotry, [and] the meaning of brotherhood…,” says Maog.
The highly recommended “South Pacific” performs at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace through June 17. For tickets, visit DruryLaneTheatre.com.