An engaging 'South Pacific' despite the thin orchestra

It's impossible to review the touring production of "South Pacific," now in the Loop, without a little history of personal frustration. The story begins in 2008 in New York's Lincoln Center and ends with my walk down the aisle of the Cadillac Palace Theatre on Thursday night, a peek in the orchestra pit, and the ugly sight of two Apple computers.

I'll never forget that Lincoln Center night, one of the great theater-going experiences in a life with a lot of theater-going. Along with Nicholas Hytner's "Carousel" and Trevor Nunn's "Oklahoma," director Bartlett Sher's sweeping, moving, transcendent, wise, all-the-rest-of-it production of "South Pacific" was one of the three best revivals of the great Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musicals I'd seen. Please, let it come to Chicago something close to like that, I remember thinking.

Actually, it came to the Rosemont Theatre (now to be known, elegantly, as the Akoo Theatre) in 2009. The 30-piece orchestra was reduced, but only slightly, and the cast still was excellent. But a number of innocent theatergoers got caught in a parking and front-of-house mess and the goregeous overture began with half the audience still in their cars. My blood boiled.

This week, finally, the tour of Sher's production arrived in the Loop, where it should have come directly from Broadway. There were no curtain delays; Broadway in Chicago saw to that. But the actors are non-Equity, which means they have no Broadway credits, and I counted just nine human musicians along with those computers. That's justifiable, arguably, when you're playing Peoria (where this tour soon will be). But given this score and the roots of this production, that's an outrage in downtown Chicago. Man the barricades, I say.

So you should just skip this, right, and go to the Lyric Opera's colossal "Show Boat" instead?

Well, the contrast in size sure is striking, but not necessarily. The good news is that Sher's production is so masterful in its fluidity and conception, there is still so very much here to enjoy, even with a flimsy orchestra. Especially if you've not seen this revivial. Sher's original direction has been artfully re-created in this more modest visual setting by Sarna Lapine and Joe Langworth. (Though thankfully not too modest; much of Michael Yeargan's richly textured set is still there.) Better yet, as non-Equity tours go, this one has been deftly cast. In fairness to this talented group of mostly early-career performers, you'll hear far better singing at "South Pacific" than at the lousy union "Mamma Mia!"tour that was just in town. Emile is played by the opera singer Marcelo Guzzo, who's a bit young and hesitant for the commanding Frenchman, but whose work also is honest, heartfelt and rich of voice.

That's true of several others. Standouts include Christian Marriner's Billis (a whip-smart comic performance), Cathy Foy-Mahi's Bloody Mary (her take is most interesting) and the youthful singer Shane Donovan as Cable, who takes time to wind up with every number. Donovan is still unsure of his capabilities, it seems, but he has an exciting theatrical voice and a boyish, vulnerable quality that others in this role have lacked.

And Thursday night, there was a new Nellie in Jennie Sophia, a very young and talented Chicago-based actress laudably unafraid of Nellie's initial racism (perhaps she was carefully taught) and very much in tune with her girlish, Little Rock roots. It's a hugely promising central performance capped by a "Some Enchanted Evening" reprise that's unpretentious and true. Actually, Sophia's work was not a surprise, locally — she was excellent in "Brigadoon" at Light Opera Works, where, incidentally, they had 24 players in the pit.

When: Through Feb. 26

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.

Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes

Tickets: $18-$85 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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