Sunday, 18 July 2021

South Pacific - Review

 Festival Theatre, Chichester


*****

Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan


Sera Maehara

“Most people live on a lonely island
Lost in the middle of a foggy sea
Most people long for another island
One where they know they will like to be…”
In his haunting lyrics to Bali Ha’i, Oscar Hammerstein II could have been writing of our world today, tenatively seeking to emerge from the pandemic and longing to re-ignite its cultural heartbeat, so cruelly suspended in springtime last year. So it is that Daniel Evans’ take on South Pacific offers an evening of classic musical theatre, staged to perfection.

Much has been made of the show’s political narrative resonating with our times. In some ways this is true and in seeking to avoid spoilers, it is unquestionably uplifting to see Ensign Nellie Forbush (stunningly played by Gina Beck) achieve moral redemption as she spurns the racist foundations of her Little Rock upbringing. Likewise, as we witness Lt Joe Cable’s (Rob Houchen) inner turmoil as he battles his love for the Polynesian Liat, against his knowledge that she will never be accepted within his Princeton-steeped heritage, we can see that Rodgers and Hammerstein were brave in recognising the racial intolerances of their USA. The sadder reality of course is that nearly 70 years later, many of the show’s themes are as relevant today as they were then.

But on close inspection, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s moral compass is flawed. While planter Emil de Becque (Julian Ovenden) will happily reject the requests of the US Navy to go on a spying mission for them in enemy territory while Nellie Forbush is in his life, the moment he realises that she could be leaving his island, he signs up for Uncle Sam with barely a thought at all for his two young children who he risks making orphans should the mission fail. Hypocrite or what? Maybe de Becque’s ultimate vacuity as a responsible parent is an inconvenient truth - but it is sufficient to cast a significant fault line across this classic show’s conscience.

This criticism however is to be levelled at the show’s book alone, for what is unquestionable at Chichester is that Evans has assembled an outstanding company who deliver musical theatre excellence. The famous numbers are legendary making spines tingle and amidst an immaculately socially distanced audience in the Festival Theatre, toes tap too.

Ovenden’s de Becque makes glorious work of Some Enchanted Evening, so frequently reprised that it becomes the  show’s signature motif. Smouldering with a chiselled gravitas, it is simply a delight to listen to him coax the song’s passion and majesty into the limelight.

As regards Gina Beck, Evans has previous form in coaxing flawless magnificence from his leading lady. This website was wowed in 2015 with Beck’s turn in Evans’ Sheffield Showboat and there is a clear chemistry between the/ pair that sees her glide through songbook classics with an assured brilliance that makes the songs seem as new as they are familiar. Evans doesn’t disappoint with the show’s stock numbers either. I’m Gonna Wash That Man right out of my hair - second only to to Hitchcock’s Psycho for a cracking shower scene - is led magnificently by Beck, while her solo moments elsewhere in the production fill the auditorium with vocal gorgeousness.

Elsewhere, the cast are gems. Keir Charles as Luther Billis captures his character’s comic complexities to a tee - no easy task - while Joanna Ampil as Bloody Mary is another stunner. Ampil’s role also comes with some challenging moral ambiguities that are mastered by this talented woman. She takes Happy Talk into a troubling lament, discovering hidden depths to the song.

Likewise Houchen masters Younger Than Springtime and the cautionary duet of You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught - itself another number that resonates alarmingly with the present day.

Production values are magnificent throughout with Evans and designer Peter McKintosh making fine use of Chichester's massive revolve. Ann Yee’s dance routines, including some inspiring solo balletic routines from Sera Maehara’s Liat are just divine, while high above the stage Cat Beveridge’s luxuriously furnished 16-piece band makes fine work of David Cullen’s new orchestrations of Rodgers’ classic score.

Some enchanted evening? Not ‘arf!


Runs until 5th September
Photo credit: Johan Persson

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