Anyone who is a fan of the film South Pacific approaches a new production with some trepidation. Will it be as good? Will the actors pull it off? Will I believe in them?
Now over seventy years old, South Pacific is regarded as the classic, the defining template for modern musicals. For its hit songs, characterisation, excellent plotting, perfect mix of dance numbers, dialogue, and song, it is exemplary. Often producers are tempted to fiddle with the time period and the setting of plays – they say, let’s make it in a different location, do it in modern dress, reference a war other than WW2, make it ‘relevant’ by changing the way songs are sung.
To his great credit, director Daniel Evans did none of these things. It wasn’t broken, he didn’t fix it. The result is one of the best evenings at the theatre to be had in London today. South Pacific lovers will be delighted with this fabulous production – and they were – for the curtain calls the audience literally stood and cheered and this cast deserved it.
The music is exactly as we want it, the full orchestra swells at exactly the right moments, and the songs are belted out just as we remember them. Musical director Cat Beveridge arranges everything to give us what we expected – and it is immensely satisfying for it. Having just come from supervising the music for Legally Blond at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre, she directs these performances with accuracy and precision staying true to Rogers and Hammerstein’s original.
The sets are excellent with set designer Peter McKintosh’s creation of a revolving stage moves with the action and allows freedom for the actors to make the most of the space. The scenes miraculously dissolve into each other. Choreographer Anne Yee creates a mute prologue that involves a beautiful Polynesian girl ballet dancing in a circle of light as a troupe of soldiers literally drop from the sky and surround her in a stomping dance. Sera Maehara is a delight as Liat, her graceful long limbs conveying her vulnerability.
The supporting cast, especially the sailors singing ‘Nothing Like a Dame’, are outstanding. Notable performances are given by Antoine Murray-Straughan and Kate Playdon. Julian Ovenden’s rendition of the song is expertly done, but it is the women who outshine the men in this production by throwing out their forceful personalities. Joanna Ampil as Bloody Mary is especially strong as both trader and mother doing her best to keep afloat and protect her daughter in a man’s world.
But the night goes to Gina Beck who plays Nellie Forbush – she ISNellie Forbush. Her personality shone out from the stage. Her acting and singing bring joy to the soul.
The musical is too well-known to explain too much of the plot. Suffice to say that it involves two sets of people in love split apart by war and racism. This pro-integration message was what encouraged attempts to have the show banned in several states of the US. Its reference to the position of women is in the script, not a 21st-century addition. The soldiers are intent on getting to another island where local girls have been sent to ‘keep them safe’ are not thinking of singing songs to them. The play is as relevant about race, class, and gender now as it was then.
The whole ensemble can be applauded for creating such a wonderful show, particularly as the rehearsals were conducted under Covid restrictions which gave an added challenge to an already complex production. With its more than 20 musical numbers including such deathless classics as Some Enchanted Evening, There is Nothing Like a Dame, Younger Than Springtime, and Bali Ha’i , the cast sang their hearts out and gave us a night to be remembered. Catch it while you can!