Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Book: Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Director: Daniel Evans
In their day, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals were subversive and mould-breaking compared to their antecedents. True, some of their attempts to address social issues look problematic to modern eyes, but the best new productions of their works seek to reframe those issues so that the modernity of their works can be reflected anew.
The Young Vic’s recent production of Oklahoma! took a deconstructionist approach which would not be to everyone’s taste. In contrast, Daniel Evans keeps his production of South Pacific, which originated at Chichester Festival Theatre, much closer to the sense of a “classic” Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, taking a subtler approach to bringing out its themes.
That is evident from the off, as the musical’s overture is turned into a thoughtful, mesmeric dance by Sera Maehara’s Liat, which is then interrupted by US military men rappelling on stage. And so what is normally an exploration and introduction of the show’s musical themes also exposes its political ones: the naval outpost that forms the setting for most of the musical is an imposition upon its indigenous inhabitants.
That reframing is also reflected in Liat’s mother, Bloody Mary, a local who trades manufactured ethnic tat with the US servicemen. Gone is any semblance of laughing at a caricature drawn from Western prejudice: Joanna Ampil’s Mary is canny, making the best of the situation forced upon her people by the presence of the occupying forces.
The main theme of the musical, though, is racism and the impact that has on relationships. Gina Beck’s Nellie Forbush is a bright and breezy gal who finds herself in love with local plantation owner Emile (Julian Ovenden) but whose ingrained racism forces her to reject him when she discovers he has two mixed-race children from his previous marriage.
This aspect of South Pacific is problematic in several ways, most seriously that its resolution – Nellie coming round and accepting the children after all – is almost presented as an afterthought. The bigger examination of ingrained prejudice, and how it is taught rather than innate, is dealt with while Nellie is off stage, in a duets between Emile and Rob Houchen’s Lieutenant Cable, in the Act II number You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.
Evans may not be able to do much about the book’s faults in the exploration of Nellie’s redemptive arc, but that theme is infused anew into the relationship between Cable and Liat. Ampil’s principal song, Happy Talk, is sharpened into a pointed plea for the young Lieutenant to marry her daughter so that she can be with a husband she loves rather than wed to a local farmer as a business transaction. This reframing would have more impact if Liat had any sense of agency herself, or even much in the way of dialogue, but one can only reshape an existing work so much.
But even as the show struggles to address these points, it does allow the score to soar. South Pacific contains some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best numbers, from character pieces such as Cock-Eyed Optimist and Some Enchanted Evening to the charms of ensemble numbers There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame and I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair. Lush orchestrations and magnificent vocals all round mean that each number is exquisitely performed. Perhaps the standout song is Ovenden’s powerful, showstopping This Nearly Was Mine, but Houchen and Beck also deliver faultless vocal performances.
It is a shame that, for all their musical perfection, Beck and Ovenden can’t quite bring the same magic to the relationship between Emile and Nellie. We keep being told they are in love with each other, but there is too little observable spark between the characters. In a lesser production, that could sink the whole show: but here, there is so much to love that one can acknowledge, but forgive, its flaws.
Continues until 28 August 2022