“South Pacific” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre? It was a somewhat enchanted evening.
The economics of producing a live theater event –let alone a full-blown musical—cannot be easy. Most producers I know do it more so out of a love of theater than any notion that they are ever going to see a return on their investment. So, I suppose I shouldn’t fault any producer willing to put his or her skin in the game in what amounts to a noble effort to keep musicals -one of America’s greatest cultural achievents—alive.
And yet, I can’t help but find some fault with NETworks Presentations, the folks behind the current tour of “South Pacific”(playing through Feb. 26) and several other non-Equity tours that have rolled through town under the auspices of “Broadway in Chicago.” NETworks’ shows certainly aren’t community theater, but Broadway they ain’t.
The pared-down production of “South Pacific” currently playing at the Palace might wow them in Debuque, but this is Chicago and we’re fortunate enough to have an embarrassment of theater riches. You don’t need a ton of money to present a quality performance; you just need some creativity and a commitment to quality work.
For the most part, the cast show’s a commitment to their craft. As the “cockeyed optimist” Ensign Nellie Forbush, Jennie Sophia effortlessly gives a zestful performance. She has a beautiful voice and manages to thoroughly charm the audience. As Lt. Joseph Cable, Shane Donovan is occasionally wooden, but he possesses enough hunky bravado and boy can the guy sing. Christian Marriner also is in fine comedic form as the scheming yet loveable Luther Billis. With a little luck, it won't be long before all three have Equity cards in hand, chasing their Broadway dreams.
Fairing less well is Marcelo Guzzo as French ex-patriot Emile de Becque. Guzzo has a rich and full voice needed to pull off “Some Enchanted Evening,” but his accent however can best be described as “continental” as it truly is all over the map. Spoken lines had a Spanish flavor and his singing voice had traces of both German and Italian. Suffice to say, you’ll have a hard time believing he’s French.
The most interesting choice of the night comes from Cathy Foy-Mahi as the native black marketer Bloody Mary. It’s normally a light-hearted, comedic role (in less skilled hands it sometimes even boarders on a racist stereotype). One of the strongest scenes in the show is when Bloody Mary attempts to prostitute her young daughter Liat (Hsin-Yu Liao) to the handsome and naïve young officer Cable.
Rogers and Hammerstein produced in a time when Broadway shows weren’t usually dark (they were once famously accused of sugar-coating the Nazi occupation of Austria in “The Sound of Music”). “South Pacific’s” anti-racism anthem “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” predates the Civil rights era by a decade or so, though. While Bloody Mary’s actions are probably historically accurate, I’m not sure if it works as it ends up taking some of the weight away from some of the other serious elements in the show.
The thing that is perhaps most disappointing is the orchestra. The last time Rogers and Hammerstein’s Pulitzer Prizw-winning show came through town it featured a full orchestra. The current tour boasts ten musicians and two computers (light even by tour standards).
Without a full orchestra, you can’t help but feel like this is a stripped and watered down version of “South Pacific.”
Yes, the score features some of the best music from the American Songbook including “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and “A Wonderful guy.” You could accompany these tunes with a chorus of kazoos and it would still feel magical. It’s best not to give NETworks any ideas though.
If you’ve never seen “South Pacific,” you will probably find enough “Bali Ha’is” to warrant your ticket purchase, though.
"South Pacific" runs through Feb. 26 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph. Tickets, $18-$85. Call (800) 775-2000; broadwayinchicago.com or southpacificontour.com.