For those who missed out on the Chichester Festival Theatre run in 2021, or those who loved it so much they need to see it again, its production of ‘South Pacific’ is back in London until the end of August, prior to a 3-month tour.
Assembling the same highly acclaimed cast as last year, the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic sees US Ensign Nellie Forbush falling for French plantation owner Emile de Becque on an island in the South Pacific island during World War 2. Their happiness seems set despite the ongoing threat of war going on around them, while at the same time, young lieutenant Joseph Cable arrives on the island having been sent on a spy mission but is quickly distracted by his attraction to a local girl. Love may be in the Pacific Ocean air for both couples, but deep-seated prejudices lie just beneath the surface which threaten to destroy everything.
Despite being nearly 75 years old, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s score sounds as fresh and glorious as it ever has, performed by a full orchestra with clear love for the material. A feast for both the ears and the eyes, director Daniel Evans has done a great job here, striking the right balance between honouring the traditions of the musical while making it feel contemporary enough not to alienate modern audiences. As with most musicals of its age, ‘South Pacific’ is long, and the pace does drop in the last half hour, where it seemingly forgets it’s a musical and focuses more on character instead, following Cable and de Becque’s assignment to assist in the war effort. It is definitely a show with the stronger songs being in the first act, and disproportionately weighted that way too, with only a handful in the second act.
Peter McKintosh’s set is well-designed with a central revolve used strongly throughout to give the visuals a lot of depth and movement. A video screen filling the top half of the back wall is also cleverly used, giving us island backdrops of Bali Ha’i along with nautical maps during the later scenes during the war mission. Lighting by Howard Harrison is also excellent, often striking, particularly where Cable meets Liat for the first time and she dances in a stunning visual of purple lightning and a circle of gentle fires.
With the cast that Evans has assembled, it’s hard to imagine that ‘South Pacific’ will ever be performed better than this, with world-class vocals from its leads. Julian Ovenden makes for a charming lead as Emile, having a great chemistry with everyone he interacts with, and feeling truly in his element on stage. He also reminds us what a stunning voice he has, making “Some Enchanted Evening” feel both modern and timeless, and turning “This Nearly Was Mine” into a masterclass in how to stun your audience into silence and awe. Gina Beck is also wonderful as Nellie, full of sunny optimism and wide-eyed romanticism, and putting her soprano tones to good use in “I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy”. Rob Houchen delivers the usual high standard of vocals that he’s become known for, truly owning “Younger Than Springtime” and turning it into a soaring moment of joy. He feels occasionally somewhat stiff in the acting stakes, particularly in the first act, but loosens up later in Cable’s journey. Stealing a lot of the spotlight from the others is Joanna Ampil as Bloody Mary, who is fantastic. The show gives a new interpretation of the character, making her sassier and funnier than ever with a hint of darkness, which completely works and Ampil delivers it brilliantly, particularly her “Happy Talk” number; again, this song has been reinterpreted and reorchestrated to give it a more wistful tone, which transforms it. The leads are ably supported by a strong ensemble who work hard throughout, especially in the “There Is Nothing Like A Dame” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” numbers, showcasing Ann Yee’s choreography to great effect.
‘South Pacific’ remains an important show, for underneath the sunny showtunes and romantic ballads, its exploration of racism remains as relevant today as it was in 1949, showing that although the world has radically changed in some ways, it really hasn’t in others. Its message that people aren’t born with racial prejudice, and that it’s taught or passed on through parental teachings, is a statement which has lost none of its power, and applies as much in 2022 as it ever did.
Exquisitely performed and stylishly delivered, ‘South Pacific’ somehow achieves a contemporary timelessness, and it has never sounded better. Despite some final-stretch pacing issues, it’s a wonderful revival of a classic, and really does provide an “enchanted evening”.
‘South Pacific’ runs at Sadler’s Wells until Sunday 28th August 2022, prior to embarking on a UK and Ireland tour from September to November 2022. https://www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on/south-pacific/
Performance runtime 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.
Reviewer: Rob Bartley
Reviewed: 4th August 2022
North west End UK Rating: ★★★★