Book: Richard Rodgers & Joshua Logan
Music/Lyrics: Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II
Director: Daniel Evans
South Pacific is a light-hearted musical with sombre racist themes played out with some of the most wonderful memorable songs. Aadapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.
Set on a South Pacific island during World War ll, depicting the conflict of the US with Japan, this powerful romantic tale relates the ups and downs of two intertwined love stories and is brought to life delightfully by Chichester Festival Theatre’s Artistic Director Daniel Evans. This revival has an amazing energetic cast of over thirty led by Julian Ovenden as Emile de Becque and Gina Beck as Nellie Forbush.
Depicting racial and international relations, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical about the American military and French economic exploitation of paradise islands, the story is coupled with violence and prejudice and this lively production accentuates the anti-racist message of the 1949 Broadway hit musical show.
Anti-racism writer and campaigner, Oscar Hammerstein raised similar topics in his 1927’s musical Show Boat and South Pacific magnifies the issues. Nurse Nellie Forbush’s rejection of Parisian exile Emile de Becque, who has earlier inspired her to sing “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy,” when she learns the widower has children from a marriage with a native Polynesian wife, seems despicable now, but was also condemned in the show over seventy years ago. This is coupled with young lieutenant Cable who, in turn decides that he can’t marry his lover Liat, daughter of the local island would-be business tycoon, Bloody Mary, because he’s a Philadelphia boy.
It seems peculiar to mix colonialism and violent bigotry and embed it amongst stunning music and passionate romance and additionally it is also a musical of ambiguities and difficulties as the two central characters are a pair of enigmas; chirpy American nurse Nellie exposes herself as a racist and French expatriate Emile gives the impression to have an informed view of racial injustice, yet he owns a plantation.
In the moving opening sequence Sera Maehara as the Tonkinese girl sways and dances alone using gesture instead of words and is then surrounded by a circle of soldiers, immersed in the sounds of battle and war; she is attributed the mesmerising language of gesture in this production which would seem to be a big gamble but one which has paid off. Joanna Ampil plays her mother, Bloody Mary, entrepreneur extraordinaire, the seller of human heads and anything she thinks worthwhile in order to support herself and her daughter, later offering her up to a US lieutenant in order to secure her future. As the young naive lieutenant, Rob Houchen gets to the heart of matters with the anti-racist number ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’, which brings home the message of narrow-mindedness and prejudice magnificently.
Douggie McMeekin, as Luther Billis provides most of the laughs and his performance of Honeybun, dressed as a hula-hula girl noticeably amused the audience from the laughter and applause which ensued during his performance.
The ensemble performs with enthusiasm with breathless dance routines; Ann Yee’s choreography is animated and all supporting artistes perform energetically with passion.
The set includes a stage revolve which is used to full extent along with working showers with cascading water, which at one point caused concern as one member of the cast slipped on the wet flooring whilst exiting the stage but luckily didn’t fall. Backdrops using depictions of swaying palm trees and mountains aka the Southern Pacific are used throughout.
Gina Beck gives an outstanding performance as Nellie Forshaw; she is the epitome of the heroine and performs with amazing energy and her voice outshines in each rendition. Julian Ovenden’s beautiful tenor voice reigns supreme; he is not only an accomplished actor but has a stirring operatic voice. One was gripped from his first delivery of the haunting ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ and, ‘This Nearly Was Mine.’ His voice is truly exceptionally beautiful.
‘Nothing Like a Dame’ and ‘Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair’ are performed with enthusiasm and comedic rendition whilst the haunting ‘Bali Ha’I’ and entertaining ‘Happy Talk’ are performed somewhat differently than in the film but with equal measure and enjoyment.
A mention must be made of the two child performers who deliver the engaging ‘Dites-Moi’ at the start and near the conclusion of the show charmingly.
This entertaining production of South Pacific has nostalgic and memorable music, wistful romantic nuances, an abundance of talent, and powerful messages of tolerance and acceptance of all races and heritages.
Runs until 23 July 2022.