Tag Archives: South Pacific

REVIEW: South Pacific – Theatre Royal, Glasgow

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

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.