12:05 AM CDT, April 11, 2013
By all means enjoy her hapless attempts to shampoo a man out of her hair. But if you fall totally in love with Ensign Nellie Forbush, then you're not watching the right "South Pacific." As Oscar Hammerstein II wrote, in that disarmingly simple lyric, "You've got to be taught to hate and fear." And Nellie was very much the willing recipient of that lesson.
So maybe Mary Martin missed it on Broadway. But in the right "South Pacific" (and director David H. Bell's carefully wrought and strikingly nuanced revival at the Marriott Lincolnshire has much that is right), the happy and romantic ending of this great 1949 American musical set among the Seabees and nurses of the Pacific theater, the ending wherein Nellie gets over her issues and reinvents herself as a tolerant soul after she almost loses her romantic French planter to Japanese guns, comes with some ambivalence, ideally a note of raw fear, as that chirpy nurse sings "Dites-Moi" with Emile de Becque's cute biracial kids.
Sure, you can see hope for America in her about-face, or the Broadway notion that love conquers everything. Or you can see a musical that brilliantly captured racial unease among the grass skirts and high jinks. Either way, Nellie is the main canvas.
Rather than bringing in some Broadway name, Bell made the very smart choice of casting young Chicago actress Elizabeth Lanza, who first commanded attention in "The Light in the Piazza" at the tiny but distinguished Theo Ubique Theatre.
Now "South Pacific" shows up in the Chicago area about two or three times a year. And why not? I could listen weekly to such numbers as "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Younger Than Springtime."
And every time I see the piece, I have Bartlett Sher's emotionally entrancing Lincoln Center revival playing in my head. Can't help that.
But of all the Nellies I've seen, and there have been many, I don't think I've ever believed one came from Little Rock quite like I believe Lanza as an Arkansas gal, far from home. Lanza, whose voice is just delightful, rushes headlong into her Nellie, never shading her limitations and thus you don't ever quite love her, which is exactly as it should be.
Better yet, you can see the same nervousness in the eyes of Stephen R. Buntrock, who brings a certain melancholy and insecurity to Emile, even as he delivers the requisite vocal force in "This Nearly Was Mine," a great ode to longing which is so often sung without a real sense of loss. Ben Jacoby, the handsome young singer who plays Cable, also has the right note or two of self-loathing. His privileged character is fevered, and Jacoby's performance shakes just enough.
Bell has come up with adroit local casting, including Stef Tovar as comic Luther Billis, a character Tovar infuses with just enough realism for you to see that Billis never will be this happy again, and Bethany Thomas, whose Bloody Mary could use more comedic confidence, perhaps, but surely is rich, musically full and dramatically potent.
One wouldn't say the production values embrace all this unease. Some of the scenes are more routine — there is one spot on the stage, a tree trunk with a view of Bali Ha'i, to which characters retreat so frequently, you wonder why Bloody Mary does not open up a concession there. But Thomas M. Ryan's set is more immersive than has recently been typical at the Marriott. The orchestral sound coming from that darn box feels richer and fuller (there are 10 pieces), and Matt Raftery's unobtrusive but sometimes moving choreography (especially toward the end) fuses well into Bell's snapshot of young, confused people who would go home to a changing America, some leading it, some wishing they were still back on that island.
When: Through June 2
Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $40-$48 at 847-634-0200 and marriotttheatre.com