Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Adapted from “Tales of the South Pacific” by James A Michener
Directed by Daniel Evans
Sadlers Wells Theatre – until 28 August 2022, then on national tour
Following an aggressively revisionist, critically lauded Young Vic Oklahoma! that sharply divided audiences (but look out for a West End transfer announcement imminently) and a My Fair Lady that seemed wonderful at NYC’s Lincoln Center but landed rather flatly on the stage of the Coliseum, Daniel Evans’s masterly take – first seen last summer at Chichester- on this 1949 Broadway classic comes as something of a relief. This is a production that respects and honours the original material in all it’s flawed humanity and emotional complexities, allowing the joy and elation but also the fear and tragedy of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s phenomenal work full rein, but still manages to find intriguing new colours and textures. It’s a thumping good night out that will satisfy the traditionalists while also giving more progressive theatregoers plenty to chew on.
Perhaps the most obvious repointing is in the role of the opportunistic, Tonkinese islander Bloody Mary, constantly looking to relieve the American soldiers of their bucks with her handmade grass skirts and questionable shrunken heads. Usually played as a tough-talking bawd viewed with boisterous affection by the Seabees she’s trying to profit from, she emerges here, in Joanna Ampil’s haunting performance, as something quite different: younger than many of her predecessors in the role, her fearsome “dragon lady” persona is simply an act to beguile the visiting Americans: we even see her removing her elaborate make up and battered Forces jacket, and letting down her hair, at one point. Sure, she’s still a pragmatic, amoral survivor but Ampil gives her a watchful desperation and melancholy that is deeply affecting. The number “Happy Talk”, which in lesser productions has come across as excruciatingly and possibly inappropriately peppy as Mary tries to marry her daughter Liat off to Lieutenant Cable, is rescored here as a song of pleading anguish. It completely, movingly remints it, and it’s unforgettable.
If Gina Beck and Julian Ovenden as the central couple, Ensign Nellie Forbush from Little Rock, Arkansas and French plantation owner Emile de Becque, are, on the surface, more traditional casting (they’re both beautiful and charming, with voices to die for), they too dig deeper into these familiar characters than I’ve ever seen before. We know they can sing (Beck’s exhilarating ability to blend chest voice and head soprano allows the music to soar in a way that brings tears to the eyes, while Ovenden’s spine-tingling rendition of “This Nearly Was Mine” is a bona fide showstopper) but it’s the truth in the acting that elevates these two performances into something compulsive and rich.
Beck doesn’t sugar the pill of Nellie’s racially motivated confusion when she discovers that Emile has children with a Polynesian woman, but makes it a seamless part of the character of a young woman who at the top of act one is complaining about her mother back in America being prejudiced against anybody not from Little Rock but then goes through her own personal hell when confronted with the fact that she has carried some of that prejudice across the Pacific Ocean with her. I can’t imagine a finer account of this complex role. Ovenden is incredibly sexy, warm and winning, but underpins it with an undefined but all too human darkness. The chemistry between the two is unmistakable but Evans’s sensitive, smart staging ends their relationship on a subtly questioning note, not the arms and lips akimbo reunion most other versions present.
Watching South Pacific in 2022, the sophistication of both the score, and Hammerstein and Joshua Logan’s book seems all the more remarkable. Yes it’s a piece of popular entertainment, sometimes rollicking and sometimes ravishingly romantic, but the way it tackles racism and interrogates the brashness of American wartime foreign policy is the stuff of riveting drama. Rodgers and Hammerstein never wrote a more overtly political song than “Carefully Taught” which posits that racism is not something we’re both with but are indoctrinated into, and it is powerfully put over here by Rob Houchen’s gorgeously sung Cable.
Evans and the brilliant choreographer Ann Yee (this is a more dance-heavy South Pacific than usual, appropriately for Sadlers Wells, and it works thrillingly as such) find a visual metaphor for the show’s racially charged central arguments by eschewing the traditional overture in favour of placing Bloody Mary’s daughter (Sera Maehara, perfect) centrestage performing what looks like a ceremonial dance, only to have her tranquil space invaded by hoardes of leaden-footed American militia. It’s terrifying and enthralling, and the image is repeated near the close of the show, to devastating effect, a pitiless reminder of the human cost of war. The counterpoint between grim action and joyful music further confirms Rodgers and Hammerstein as the true precursors to Sondheim.
Musically, this production is sublime: Cat Beveridge’s fifteen piece band sounds lush and full, with David Cullen’s orchestrations intriguingly pointing up both the minor chords and the joyful “Broadway” elements of the score, and the choral singing thrills the blood. Peter Mckintosh’s set solves the problem of trying to recreate a tropical paradise onstage by setting the whole thing, not in appropriately, in a giant aircraft hangar (we even get an airplane on stage at one point!) and letting Howard Harrison and Gillian Tan (superb lighting and video design, respectively) do much of the atmospheric heavy lifting. It works triumphantly.
As he proved with his 2016 Showboat (which featured Gina Beck as an incandescent Magnolia), Daniel Evans knows exactly what makes these vintage musicals tick. He amplifies what makes them classics but finds ways of ensuring that they read as relevant and fascinating for modern audiences. Even the scene changes in this production are a thing of beauty, whole sets swirl into place before our very eyes, enhancing the action, never detracting from it. This is a profoundly satisfying experience on every level.
Having endured the ropey West End revival in the late 1980s (will never forget the island of Bali Ha’i on a painted backdrop wobbling perilously every time a cast member walked within a few inches of it), the impressive but overlong Trevor Nunn staging at the National in 2002, and the watered down Lincoln Center version that landed at the Barbican just over a decade ago, I didn’t think I needed to ever sit through South Pacific again. It’s wonderful to be proved wrong….I would have hated to miss this flawless, soul-feeding production. It’s an absolute must-see.