REVIEW: South Pacific – Theatre Royal Glasgow, 12th November 2011

Musicals don’t get any more classic than this. It is one of the most glorious scores that Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote, and such is its universal fame that as the overture played the audience began quietly singing along. Yet despite the great love for this musical it has rarely been revived, this production is based on Bartlett Sher’s 2008 Broadway version, the first since the show’s debut in 1949. The reason can be laid squarely at the door of the contentious themes that are portrayed in this show.

For most, South Pacific is remembered for its songs, and people’s perception of this Rogers and Hammerstein’s work is as a jolly, funny and sentimental story but its subject matter is actually rather controversial. Its exploration of race and prejudice tackles serious themes with an admirable social conscience, and there is more darkness and deep emotion in this show than it’s given credit for. The song “Carefully Taught” with the lines;

You’ve got to be carefully taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught…”

illustrates that this isn’t your run of the mill candy-floss musical.

One example of this is perfectly illustrated when the show’s likeable heroine, the nurse Nellie Forbush, is appalled when she discovers that the French plantation owner she has fallen in love with is the father of mixed-race children with the Polynesian woman he once lived with.

Then there is the scene when another white character, Lieutenant Cable, has a young island girl pimped to him by her mother Bloody Mary. He wastes no time in deflowering the girl and later leaves her (albeit with heavy heart) citing the fact that someone like him couldn’t possibly marry someone like her.

It’s been said by some that this touring version is not quite as lavish as the original Lincoln Centre production, (however, I’ve seen the Live From Lincoln Centre broadcast since seeing this and it looks exactly the same.) The colourful South Sea Island set designs and the excellent 25-piece orchestra (led by a Cary Grant look a like,who was raising the temperature of the lady of advancing years sitting beside me)  bring the best out of the brilliant score. I must also say something about the phenomenally atmospheric lighting design. You don’t realise what a difference good lighting makes to a production until you see something like this. It was just beautiful and so evocative.

The performances are all well-judged, and the story of the American navy trying to find a way to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific during the Second World War has romance, comedy and suspense.

It was understudy Carly Anderson who played Ensign Nellie Forbush today, who learns the error of her racial prejudice. She was a competent performer but I found her voice lacking in any power or distinction.

Loretta Ables Sayre, who also starred on Broadway, is well cast in the role of the somewhat sinister Bloody Mary, the islander who tries to make a profit out of warfare. She makes you laugh, but she makes your flesh crawl too.

Welsh opera singer Jason Howard, plays Nellie’s romantic interest, the plantation owner Emile de Becque. He sings with a beautiful rich baritone in such great numbers as Some Enchanted Evening. I also saw in the programme that he had started his career on this very stage in Glasgow (with Scottish Opera) and it was a pleasure to see him back.

Alex Ferns is the comic turn, Seabee Luther Billis, below is his grass-skirted drag number, Honey Bun.

This is a production of quality, a classic of American musical theatre, revived with the love it richly deserves. It was a delight to see.