Book: Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Director Daniel Evans
It’s our old chums Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, joined this time by Joshua Logan. And unlike others of their catalogue and period – South Pacific has not only weathered the storm of time but grown alongside it. The amelioration of the original South Pacific by Chichester Festival Theatre’s 2021 production comes with concern for some fans, though overly welcome by audiences and critics. It benefits tremendously from the re-imagining of aspects – particularly those which reinforce the attempts of a stance on racism, never fully actualised in the original.
The introduction of a prologue enables performers such as Sera Maehara a more significant presence, though not nearly enough overall, is one of the beneficial inclusions which transcend and push for a progressive production; including the (near)elimination of significant ethnic stereotypes, additional music from the cinematic release, and a re-orchestration which absolutely perfects the storytelling composition.
One thing which never changes though is war. South Pacific stills retains its power and magnitude as a piece set during the height of the Second World War in the titular area, as the US military and marines struggle to find a point of access against Japanese resistance. At its core, though is a pair of intertwining tales of love, and acceptance; Ensign Nellie Forbush (Gina Beck) falls for an older French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Julian Ovenden), despite her fervour of emotion, the Little Rock native struggles with accepting Emile’s two mixed-race children from a previous relationship.
In harmony with another, messier, tale of romance Princeton-educated US Marine Lieutenant Cable (Rob Houchen) falls/is pushed into a meeting with a Tonkinese woman, Liat, played by the previously mentioned Maehara. Here the pressures of a mixed relationship become more pronounced. The daughter of a local woman, business endeavour and the show’s noted character Bloody Mary (Joanna Ampil).
Issues arise as we move past the veil of our protagonists and into the additional side-players in this musical, and the detriment their inclusion has to the pacing and overall tone. Most troublesome is Luther Billis and other SeaBee sequence events – the character has limitations in the writing, severe ones which drain the urgency of the momentum as the production halts entirely to focus on another ‘kooky’ scheme or half-baked solution to a more engaging and interesting scene which we could be focusing on.
It’s one bump in an otherwise smooth road and a stage setting which, while expansive, utilises much of the space offered for Ann Yee’s choreography which shifts from a kitsch, light-hearted romp of the nurses and SeaBees to a more intimate and hypnotic movement of Maehara and the more traditional aspects of South Pacific’s use of Polynesian culture. It fuses well with the minimal set-dressing, an immense but otherwise plain series of corrugated sheets where different aspects and visuals of Gillian Tan’s video design or Howard Harrison’s lighting serve as a suitable backdrop.
Ovenden and Ampil walk away with the most distinctive vocal performances of the evening; Ovenden legions ahead with clarity and projection which thunder throughout the theatre, crisp and powerful. Where Ampil benefits tremendously from being able to flex the role of Bloody Mary away from a horrific caricature, as the re-arrangement of their notorious Happy Talk moves from its uncomfortable past into a painful song of pleading desperation, away from its roots as a problematic ‘ditty’.
This discomfort is thankfully lifted with Chichester Festival Theatre’s nuanced re-evaluation of the production, and without sacrifice re-invigorate the show to near-perfect standards. With nary a dud note or weakness from the titular cast, this only slips up with the remaining comedic relief elements which, with tightening or more authentic incorporation, could see South Pacific reclaim a forgotten brilliance in previous genre-breaking big-stage musicals; otherwise remaining a captivating splendour of musical theatre, or rejuvenation and vivid imagination.
Runs until 29 October 2022 | Image: Johan Persson