'South Pacific' review — Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical is recharged with a new political currency

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Put to one side, and it isn’t easy, the gorgeous orchestral swells that usually precede South Pacific and that, in the revelatory Lincoln Center Theater revival of this 1949 musical in New York in 2008, were capable of inducing tears of joy.

Daniel Evans’s thoughtful and pointed reappraisal of the same Rodgers and Hammerstein title, seen last year at Chichester and now at Sadler’s Wells for a late-summer run, opens with the sight of Liat (Sera Maehara), the young Tonkinese child of Bloody Mary, alone onstage.

Lost in a danced reverie only she can understand, Liat soon finds herself surrounded by military men – their unbridled testosterone a threat to the innocence of a young woman here given movement, not words, with which to leave a mournful impression.

This haunting beginning, amplified by Ann Yee’s plaintive choreography, suggests from the off that this won’t be your garden-variety South Pacific. That’s to say that even as the glories of the score cascade across the footlights, one never loses sight of a musical about two cross-cultural relationships involving people who don’t always behave, or speak, honourably: a community, in other words, that will know what it means to come to grief.

Ensign Nellie Forbush (Gina Beck), for one, may tell us time and again what a small-town Arkansas hick she is, in a perhaps too-desperate attempt to corral sympathy for this sweet-seeming nurse who wants nothing more than to “wash that man right outa my hair”.

But scarcely has this “cockeyed optimist” learned that her beloved Emile de Becque (Julian Ovenden) has two children by a Polynesian woman before Nellie’s sunny demeanour devolves into a racism that feels all too contemporary. Unlike too many Nellies amongst us right now, it’s part of the irresistible fabric of this show that the sheltered, blinkered woman on view before us becomes a better version of herself in time for the final curtain.

South Pacific has always been oddly structured. Sourced in James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the musical has a first act so awash with song that it comes as something of a surprise when a dialogue-heavy second act gives over to wartime manoeuvres and the separate fates of Luther Billis (Douggie McMeekin) and Joseph Cable (Rob Houchen) – supporting characters at opposite ends of the social spectrum.

And as the Princeton grad whose relationship with Liat here more than ever feels like a riff on Madama Butterfly, the ever-busy Rob Houchen is outstanding. “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”, that great number presented without room for applause, sounds more than ever like this character’s reminder not just to others but to himself that decency still matters. That’s true even if you happen to be on a remote island during wartime many leagues removed from home.

In a production whose supporting players make a palpable difference, Joanna Ampil is remarkable, too, as Bloody Mary, Liat’s mother conceived as a Mother Courage of sorts who brings to “Happy Talk” a fevered intensity that is properly unsettling: one feels a mother’s calculated desperation on behalf of her daughter, which in turn only amplifies the tragedy to follow. (You note, too, the casually racist name-calling that is Bloody Mary’s lot, this mercenary referred to more than once as “sweaty pie”.)

The two leads take somewhat longer to come into focus. Beck’s syrupy southern accent modulates after a while, allowing this veteran performer’s clarion soprano to do justice to the cavalcade of songs that come Nellie’s way. A tricky part, Nellie needs to convince as a goofy ditz possessed of possibly unpleasant steel, which itself exists to be redeemed.

Beck isn’t the natural in the role that Kelli O’Hara was across the Atlantic – not many people would be – but by the time of her reprise of “Dites Moi” to the children with a mixed ethnic background she has come to accept and love, the performer has the audience rooting for both the return of the children’s father and the reaffirmation of the couple’s prospects going forward.

Ovenden is no stranger to playing Frenchmen as he showed in 2013 with his acclaimed Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George. He slips with remarkable ease not just into the requisite accent but the Gallic cadence that goes with it.

It’s not until “This Nearly Was Mine” late in act two that his celebrated tenor really here lets rip in what is a less imposing take on this part than I have seen before. The comparative softness he communicates tallies with this onetime murderer’s own insistence on humanity in the face of a societal tendency towards hatred that hasn’t abated to this day.

The rending deployment of Liat as a stage presence both framing and haunting the action distinguishes Yee’s achievement, which includes, as it must, properly rumbustious company numbers for both Luther and his fellow Seebies and Nellie’s comparably frolicsome distaff equivalent.

But political currency is there, as well, in that moment following Luther’s post-interval drag act when Peter McKintosh’s turntable set (images of palm trees swaying in the breeze behind it) sends an American flag crashing to the stage floor. For all that South Pacific insists on “Some Enchanted Evening”, disenchantment, and worse, are never far from this mighty musical’s fearless gaze.

South Pacific is at Sadler's Wells to 28 August. Book South Pacific tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck in South Pacific (Photo by Johan Persson)

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