Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Finely Sung 'South Pacific' Makes for "Some Enchanted Evening" -- Theater Review

Theater Review

South Pacific
a Rodgers & Hammerstein Muscial
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 26

Like Picasso for painting, Chaplin for early cinema, Hitchcock for suspense films, Mozart for classical music and Houdini for magic, Rodgers & Hammerstein stands as a de facto synonym for musical theater.

In some ways, at least in my (admittedly askew) mind, this undermines their legacy. The stage works (and film adaptations) of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, including Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King & I and The Sound of Music, are such standards that I tend not to think of them--the shows or the creators--as particularly innovative or daring.

Though as a fan of the Broadway genre, I can't help but hold Rodgers & Hammerstein's music and musicals in high regard, somehow they haven't rung quite as cool as Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Kander & Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret), Bock & Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello), Lerner & Loewe (My Fair Lady, Camelot) or Boublil & Schönberg (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon), among others. 

A year ago, when I published this piece citing my 22 all-time favorite musicals, no Rodgers & Hammerstein shows made the cut. At the time, I had never witnessed a stage production of The Sound of Music, but even after seeing two excellent renditions in 2011 it would only sneak in near the bottom.

Likewise, I still wouldn't cite South Pacific among my very favorite musicals, but on my third live voyage, Tuesday night at the Cadillac Palace, I was again reminded of just how brilliant--and plenty daring--Mssrs. Rodgers & Hammerstein were.

A musical that this openly condemns racial prejudice might seem a bit dated in 2012--though sadly, perhaps not all that universally--but when it first bowed on Broadway in 1949, the Arkansas from which the Nellie Forbush character hails still would have segregated restrooms for several more years. Central High School in Little Rock notably resisted desegregation until it was legally enforced in 1957 and the lunch counter at Woolworth's in Little Rock wouldn't be desegregated until 1963. So in penning a song like "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" (to hate and fear), Dick and Oscar weren't exactly abstaining from boldly commenting on divisive topics.

And while modern day musicals might be lucky to offer one song that can be hummed on the way home, "A Cockeyed Optimist," "There is Nothing Like a Dame," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," "A Wonderful Guy" and "Honey Bun" are among the most tuneful showtunes ever written. And along with "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha, "Some Enchanted Evening" may be the most emotively enthralling solo number ever written for a man to belt out on a theatrical stage.

Fortunately, on the first night of the two-week tour stop in Chicago, these wonderful songs were done proper justice. Derived from the highly acclaimed 2008 Broadway revival from which I'd already seen a tour that played Rosemont in late 2009, this is a non-Equity tour for which Bartlett Sher's original direction has been recreated by Sarna Lapine.

Theoretically, I tend to agree with Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones in his oft-made assertion that non-Equity touring shows should be openly billed as such or priced lower than shows adhering to Actors' Equity union pay standards for performers (and thus, costing their producers more). I've seen enough Equity and non-Equity tours to generally perceive the Equity productions to feature better (or at least more clearly experienced) talent.

But no one's going to put you onstage, let alone on tour, if you can't sing/dance/act and I'd be lying if I said that I could distinguish--especially from the upper balcony, but likely anywhere--the singing in this South Pacific as being lesser than what I'd expect from an Equity cast, or even on Broadway.

Yes, through my handy binoculars, Marcelo Guzzo looked a little young and ungrizzled as Emile de Becque, but as a seasoned opera singer, he belted "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine" as well as I could have hoped.

There seemed to be a smidgen of a screech in Katie Reed's speaking and singing voice as Ensign Nellie Forbush, but not to the point of distraction, and the key supporting roles of John Cable, Luther Billis and Bloody Mary were well handled by Shane Donovan, Christian Marriner and Cathy Foy-Mahi, respectively.

Even the most illustrious musicals of old tend to have a different tonality and pacing than more recent ones--even if Rodgers & Hammerstein's works largely represented an advancement in narrative cohesion--and South Pacific (at nearly 3 hours) is a bit long and talky in parts for me to label the source material or this production as absolute perfection.

But as was once again evidenced--and in truth, I've never been disappointed by any of their classics, more just took them for granted--Rodgers & Hammerstein aren't regarded as masters of the musical art form for no good reason. And with a non-Equity cast proving that first-rate talent need not always hold a union card, this production provided far more than a somewhat enchanted evening.

Based on the undersold balcony on Tuesday, and Wednesday's listings, tickets may be had for as low as $15 in the upper balcony (plus fees if bought through Ticketmaster, but without at the box office) or at half-price in the orchestra section through HotTix.

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