Unlike other works of the period, Richard Rodgers, Joshua Logan and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1949 musical South Pacific, has largely stood the test of time. Originally written with the intention of sending a strong progressive message on racism, it also benefits from a re-imagination in this incarnation originally staged at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2021. There are re-orchestrations, the introduction of a prologue, additional music from the 1958 film version and most importantly, a fixing of the racial overtones and elimination of the ethnic stereotypes in the characterisations of Bloody Mary and her daughter Liat.
Set during World War Two on an island in the Pacific, it is essentially two intertwining love stories; Ensign Nelly Forbush (Gina Beck) falls for older plantation owner Emile de Becque (Julian Ovenden) but despite the strength of her feelings, Arkansas native Nellie struggles to accept his mixed-race children. The tandem love story is that of Princeton educated, US Marine Lieutenant Cable (Rob Houchen) and Tonkinese woman Liat (Sera Maehara), and the pressures on their mixed-race relationship.
The set is simplistic, projections on a corrugated back drop with different scenery rolled in and out, and no less effective for it. The lighting too is gorgeous and atmospheric. It all provides a darkness that the subject matter warrants and a suitable back-drop to the talent on stage.
From the first swelling bars of this lush-sounding orchestra to the final notes, this is a work of infinite quality, it simply oozes perfection from every pore, there is not a weak link among this large and hugely talented cast. Gina Beck is suitably perky as nurse Nelly and a rich-voiced Julian Ovenden is perfectly pitched as a more realistic, well-rounded, less caricature Emile. Instead of swanning around in a white linen suit, this Emile looks as if he might actually work on a plantation in the south Pacific. The male chorus are unmatched in the memory of this writer, the sound they create is simple sumptuous, and the female cast give them a good run for their money. The two child actors who portray Emile’s children are again, much more realistic, less stereotyped. The casting overall, couldn’t be better.
That such subject matter, and songs like Carefully Taught, shone a light at racism in America in 1949 is brave indeed, but there’s a discomfort to some of the material to 21st Century ears. Of particular note, is the re-orchestration of the usually saccharine Happy Talk, sung by Bloody Mary (Joanna Ampil). Here it is a pleading tune of desperation at the fate of her daughter and the American serviceman, instead of a silly ditty written (in a now uncomfortable to hear) pidgin English.
Almost every aspect of this production is to be lauded, from its design, its re-imagination, re-orchestrations and ultimately its astounding cast. This is a production not to be missed.
Runs until 8 October 2022 | Image: Johan Persson
Originally published at The Reviews Hub