Monday, 12 September 2011

... seen "South Pacific"

Though a rabid lover of musicals in general, I’m not especially a Rodgers & Hammerstein fan – Oklahoma sends me to sleep, The King and I is way too long, and even The Sound of Music doesn’t thrill me much – but I had never seen South Pacific, and given the hit-strewn score and fascinating subject matter, not to mention the clutch of Tony Awards won by this production, I was hoping to have my mind changed by my night at the Barbican ...

Samantha Womack and Alex Ferns camp it up, island-style.

The much-lauded Lincoln Center Theater (sic) revival of South Pacific, which wowed New York audiences a few years ago, has received equally deafening praise on this side of the pond, with its almost entirely original cast throwing their considerable talents into bringing this oddly dated and untheatrical musical back to life.

Set on an island near Japan in the eponymous ocean, the plot follows nurse Nellie Forbush and various soldiers through their wartime adventures; light relief is provided by the spivvy antics of Luther Billis (Alex Ferns), and a darker tone by the story of Lieutenant Cable (handsome, huge-voiced Daniel Koek), who falls for a Polynesian woman in a classic star-crossed love match. On paper, South Pacific has everything: love, war, death, drag and sailors dancing in formation: so why did it fail to move or even convince me?

It seems strange to say this – and it was certainly strange to watch – but from the muted opening scene with two tiny kids singing a French nursery rhyme, to the equally understated ending, where the song Dites-Moi is reprised, South Pacific struck me as a film musical adapted for the stage rather than an original piece of musical theatre, and I was surprised to discover that it was on Broadway well before it went to Hollywood.

The best-known numbers (Some Enchanted Evening, Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair, etc.) certainly have new light (and sometimes darkness) thrown on them by being seen in the context of the story. Whereas You’ve Got To Be Taught – a once-controversial song about racial prejudice – always packed a punch, I didn’t expect Happy Talk to be sung by Tonkinese hawker Bloody Mary (the fantastic, stomping Loretta Ables Sayre) to the man to whom she has just prostituted her daughter about the lovely time they’ll have when they’re married. Optimistic it surely is (especially given Cable’s reluctance to wed the girl), but light it ain’t.

Wash That Man, similarly, though beautifully sung and danced by ex-Eastender Samantha Womack and the female company, sends a slew of mixed messages: not only does female lead Nellie fail to wash French planter Emile (Jason Howard) out of her hair, the minute the song ends she’s back in his arms, and we are left to wonder what exactly the point of the number is, if not to undermine Nellie’s character and strip her of any hint of backbone. Though played charmingly, modern audiences face obvious difficulties in loving or caring about a woman whose unexamined racism leads her to abandon her boyfriend because he has mixed-race children. Thanks to this, the central love story between Nellie and Emile feels forced and false, even after she finally overcomes her prejudice, and he his reluctance to get involved with the war in his backyard.

The second-string romance, between Lieutenant Cable and his silent Polynesian mistress Liat, is equally troubled: he doesn’t feel he can take a non-white bride back home, and she refuses to marry anyone else – needless to say, it doesn’t end happily. The shadow of war, unhappiness and sacrifice falls long over everybody, and while this is understandable, it does throw the frothier numbers, such as the cross-dressing duet Honey Bun, into peculiar relief. Rodgers and Hammerstein appear to be trying, in this musical, to cover such a wide range of emotions and so many hot topics (prejudice, duty, cultural imperialism) that, for me at least, the result was unsatisfactory and muddled: a show that didn’t know whether it wanted to win an Oscar or an audience ovation.

On a positive note, this production certainly made me want to read James A. Michener’s original book (a extract from which is printed on the fire curtain); but despite uniformly excellent performances, Michael Yeargan’s beautiful, picture-postcard set, and a glut of memorable tunes (Bloody Mary’s yearning, hypnotic song Bali H’ai is still ringing in my ears), I’m sorry to say South Pacific left me all at sea.

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