Funny, tuneful and touching as ever
|Light Opera Works presents|
Review by John Olson
With Lyric Opera’s five-year series of lavish productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals having reached its halfway mark earlier this year with their Carousel, Chicago audiences have been treated to some gorgeously visualized and sung productions of these classics, and the bar had already been set quite high. One wouldn’t blame a local company for shying away from the R&H catalogue for fear of inviting comparisons, but this South Pacific compares quite favorably to Lyric’s wonderful Oklahoma! and Carousel (and yes, I’m deliberately leaving their Sound of Music out of the discussion – that one was more about the scenery than the music). Lyric has announced South Pacific for 2017, but it’s hard to imagine how they’ll deliver the music appreciably better than the performances here. Light Opera Works’ calling card of a full 30-piece orchestra is as valuable as ever with the lush original Robert Russel Bennett orchestrations, but the lead performers are all knockouts in delivering the songs of R & H’s arguably best score.
When New York’s Lincoln Center Theatre mounted its South Pacific in 2008, they brought in opera’s Paulo Szot all the way from Brazil to play the lead role of Emile de Becque. Light Opera needed to go no further than its ranks of regulars to find the perfect de Becque in Larry Adams. Adams, the only Equity member in the cast – has a powerful yet controlled and emotional baritone made for this role, and his “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” are stunning. He rises to the occasion as an actor as well – giving his character maturity and grace, but showing his hurt and anger when his love interest Nellie breaks away from him after learning that this French-born plantation owner had previously been married to a Polynesian woman. As Ensign Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse who catches De Becque’s eye across a crowded room on a South Seas island during World War II, Sarah Larson reads younger than we typically picture Nellie, but she makes it work. Ms. Larson plays Nellie more naïve than in typical interpretations – accenting the insecurities the script gives her character – and it works as a fresh interpretation of this character so well known to musical theater fans. Larson is a lovely performer who makes us see why everyone on the base and the island love her. She charms us with her energetic and upbeat renditions of the show’s standards that include “A Cockeye Optimist,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right out of My Hair” and “A Wonderful Guy.”
Justin Adair delivers stunning vocals in “Younger than Springtime” and “Carefully Taught” as the melancholy Lt. Joe Cable. The production’s Bloody Mary is a special treat as well, with Yvonne Strumecki repeating the role she played in the non-Equity second national touring production of Lincoln Center’s South Pacific. She has both the comic and vocal chops required for this role of the local entrepreneur who introduces her lovely teenage daughter (Victoria M. Ng) to Cable. Brian Zane rounds out the principals as the crafty Luther Billis, constantly on the lookout for new ways to make cash in the temporarily lulled war zone island.
The leads are complemented by a winning ensemble of 25, providing strong choral backup under the direction of music director/conductor Roger L. Bingaman and executing the clever dances by director-choreographer Rudy Hogenmiller. Adam Veness’s rattan-themed set with panoramic painted banners takes us to the island, with Andrew H. Meyers’ lighting providing both bright tropical sunlight and romantic moonlight as the scenes require.
Hogenmiller and Bingaman, as is their trademark, approach their materials with reverence. It seems their actors performed every line of dialogue from the original script, including sections that other productions have cut. With a running time of nearly three hours, they might have benefitted from some judicious edits to the script (and I wouldn’t have minded less of the underscoring). Even so, this is one of Light Opera Works’ liveliest productions to date, thanks to the energy of the young and sexy cast as well as the upbeat songs, particularly in the first act.
South Pacific was somewhat neglected between the time the 1958 film version was released and the turn of this century. Maybe this was partly because of its length (nearly three hours) or maybe because its themes of racial intolerance scared off producers during the last few decades of the 20th Century. It was actually a Brit who took a fresh look at it, when Trevor Nunn directed the musical for the National Theatre in 2001, the same year a made-for-ABC-TV film starring Glenn Close and Harry Connick Jr. aired. It was the Lincoln Center production in 2008, directed by Bartlett Sher, that really made the case for the musical as more than just a collection of great songs, but as an important piece of American history with relevance for today. His white, middle-class characters were representative of the insulated Americans of the 1930’s and 1940’s who were first exposed to foreign cultures through the upheaval of World War II.
As with most other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, the stakes and the emotions are high. This one, though, due to its subject matter, feels as grounded and real it is romantic. Hogenmiller and company have done right by it here.
South Pacific continues through August 30th at Evanston’s Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson (map), with performances Wednesdays 2pm, Fridays and Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $34-$94, and are available by phone (847-920-5360) or through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at LightOperaWorks.org. (Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Mona Luan
Sarah Larson (Nellie Forbush), Larry Adams (Emile de Becque), Alexis Aponte (Ngana), Dylan Lainez (Jerome), Angel Abcede (Henry), Yvonne Strumecki (Bloody Mary), Victoria M. Ng (Liat), Brian Zane (Luther Billis), David Sevillo (Stewpot), Greg Zawada (Professor), Justin Adair (Lt. Joseph Cable), Kirk Swenk (Capt. George Brackett), Russell Alan Rowe (Cmndr. William Barbison), Matt Edmonds (Lt. Buzz Adams), Zachary Lee Schley (Yeoman Herbert Quale), Dan Gold (Radio Operator Bob McCaffrey), Amanda Horvath (Ensign Dinah Murphy), Alexis Armstrong, Ariana Cappucitti, Joe Capstick, John Cardone, Melissa Crabtree, Matt Edmonds, Jomar Ferreras, Dan Gold, Amanda Horvath, Christopher MacGregor, Kelly Maryanski, Patrick Perry, Elena Romanowski, Zachery Lee Schley, Kara Schoenhofer, Denzel Tsopnang, Alex Walker, Korey White (ensemble).
Roger L. Bingaman (conductor), Nina Saito (violin, concertmaster), Jean Bishop (flute, piccolo), Debra R. Freedland (oboe, English horn), David Tuttle, Gail Crosson (clarinets), Dianne Ryan (bassoon), Kelly Langenberg, Sandra J. Swanson, Michael Buckwalter (horns), John Burson, Kevin Wood, Charles K. Finton (trumpets), John McAllister, James Mattern (trombones), James Langenberg (tuba), Debbie Katz Knowles (percussion), Renee Wilson (harp), John F. Ling, Gretchen Sherrell, Elizabeth M. Brown, Corinne Brodick, David Belden, Martin Hackl, Diana Brodick (violins), Kjell J. Sleipness, William Kronenberg, Jay Pike (violas), Dorothy A. Deen, Victoria A Mayne (cellos), Joseph Krzysiak (bass)
behind the scenes
Rudy Hogenmiller (director, choreographer, artistic director), Roger L. Bingaman (music director, conductor), Adam Veness (scenic design, tech director), Catharine Young, Sydney Dufka (costume design), Sienna Kusek (hair and make-up design), Andrew H. Meyers (lighting design), Aaron Quick (sound design), Margaret Goddard-Knop (props design), Tom Campbell (stage manager), Katie Beeks (production manager), Bridget McDonough (general manager), Kyle A. Dougan (casting director), Matt Conlon (house manager), Kara Schoenhofer (asst. director, asst. choreographer), Jake Wiener (asst. stage manager), Linda Madonia (asst. music director), Joe Palermo (asst. sound design), Stephanie Tomey (costume assistant), Elizabeth Parades (hair and makeup assistant), Amanda Brinton (asst. props design), Mona Luan (photos)