This glorious revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical is a simple but stylish production that allows the score to soar beautifully.
‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ ‘There is Nothin’ Like a Dame’ – this is a show that is filled with beautiful classic songs that really soar in this revival directed by Daniel Evans that also re-evaluates some of the heavier topics with great sensitivity and insight.
Once again, it is credit to the Chichester Festival Theatre (where this production originated) for creating a revival that is joyous and refreshing to watch and allowing the audiences to see a classic musical in a new light. The story begins with US Navy Nurse Nellie Forbush who is stationed on an island in the South Pacific and has started a romance with the mysterious and somewhat melancholy French Plantation owner Emile de Becque. The pair become engaged despite knowing very little about each other – a point emphasised at the end of act one with a revelation. Elsewhere, Luther Billis is trying to make money while trying to visit the neighbouring island of Bali Ha’i – a dream that comes true after the arrival of Lieutenant Joseph Cable – but tragedy looms in the background.
There is a lovely rustic style to Daniel Evans’s production thanks to Peter McKintosh’s simple but cleverly constructed set design that allows the story and music take centre stage. But I also enjoyed the way in which Ann Lee’s movement direction allowed the character Liat (performed with great sensitivity and delicacy by Sera Maehara) to express herself in a different way as opposed to words, while her routines for the likes of ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’ and ‘There is Nothin’ Like a Dame’ are delightfully playful. But there are so many classy moments in the way in which scenes have been staged – just keep an eye out in particular for the moments that take place on Bali Ha’i which are particularly beautiful to witness.
What is so striking about this musical as a whole is the way in which it examines topics such as misogyny and racism that was incredibly ahead of its time and is sadly all too relevant to these times. Moments such as when Nellie discovers a last secret about Emile is strikingly positioned to get the audience to re-evaluate the characters we have been getting to know in a subtle and pointed way.
Perhaps in places the pacing is a little bit inconsistent and the second act in particular feels a little bit rushed, but oh my goodness the music and singing shines throughout this production. From Julian Ovenden’s incredibly powerful performances of ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ (which I could listen to on repeat if I’m honest) and the strikingly impactful ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught’ (which certainly provides food for thought), enhanced further by the glorious orchestra who perform the score with great depth.
The cast are all sublime in this production. Gina Beck plays Nellie with a great perkiness and charm that makes her reaction to certain revelations so surprising and contrasting to what we thought we knew about her hcharacter, meanwhile vocally she is a sheer delight with her performance of ‘I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy’ is a real highlight. Julian Ovenden gives the character Emile great charm – but with a hint of melancholy that gives the character real depth and allows the audience to really feel for him. Meanwhile, as Luther Billis, Douggie McMeekin is memorable for all the right reasons as seen through the ‘Honey Bun’ sequence – his light comedic touches are a delight to watch, while Joanna Ampil offers a powerful performance as Bloody Mary – highlighting how the character is willing to fight to survive no matter what.
South Pacific is a joy to behold and while it deserves its UK tour – it also deserves a longer and more permanent stay somewhere as its charm and relevancy in 2022 can’t be denied.
By Emma Clarendon