Words: Simon Button; pictures: Johan Persson
After seeing the redo of Oklahoma! at the Young Vic in May this year, I wondered what Rodgers and Hammerstein would have made of it. Would they have been impressed by the reframing of their first Broadway collaboration, which opened in 1943, as a sort of ‘Wokelahoma!’ for 2022?
Or would they have been baffled by its exploration of the dark underbelly of their yee-haw classic?
Joanna Ampil (centre, as Bloody Mary) & members of the company in Chichester Festival Theatre’s South Pacific (Photo: Johan Persson)
No such speculation is necessary after seeing the current revival of their 1949 collab South Pacific, which is at Sadler’s Wells in London ahead of a UK and Ireland tour and which, under the direction of Daniel Evans (who also helmed the show at Chichester Festival Theatre last year), is faithful to their original conception.
Well, mostly. It’s a classy production that flounders in some areas. Ann Yee’s choreography is overly busy, with dancers seemingly doing their own thing and few moments where they’re all in sync.
The sets, comprised of corrugated iron and wood, are kind of ugly. I can’t fathom why the usually upbeat ‘Happy Talk’ is stripped of its humour. And the emotional punch that ought to come at the end is oddly muted.
Gina Beck (centre, as Nellie) & members of the company in Chichester Festival Theatre’s South Pacific (Photo: Johan Persson)
But ensemble numbers like the testosterone-fuelled ‘There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame’ and its female-led flipside ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’ are real barnstormers and the performances are outstanding.
Interestingly, South Pacific’s new leading man Julian Ovenden was at the Oklahoma! opening night and just as interestingly, this most handsome of performers with the richest of tenor voices has never done the latter show.
He’s only (stunningly) sung ‘Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’ in concert, yet oh what a beautiful man Ovenden is. He’d be perfect as the cowboy hero Curly McLain.
Julian Ovenden (as Emile de Becque) in Chichester Festival Theatre’s South Pacific (Photo: Johan Persson)
And he sure is perfect here as Emile de Becque, a French expatriate plantation owner on a South Pacific island during World War Two who woos American nurse Nelly Forbush (Gina Beck).
Stationed on the island, she’s younger than he is but also less enlightened; when she discovers Emile has two mixed-race children she shuns him. Meanwhile, US marine Lieutenant Joe Cable (Rob Houchen) is crazy in love with Polynesian girl Liat (Sera Maehara) but knows their relationship would be frowned upon back home.
Joanna Ampil (Bloody Mary), Sera Maehara (Liat) & Rob Houchen (Joe Cable) in Chichester Festival Theatre’s South Pacific (Photo: Johan Persson)
There’s no need for director Evans to reframe the story because wokeism is already built in. Hammerstein famously loathed prejudice and his lyrics for ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’ are a direct challenge to racist views – making this an ahead-of-its-time musical with its plea for tolerance very much at the forefront amidst the fabulous froth of ‘I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy’ and the soaring romanticism of ‘Some Enchanted Evening’.
I just wish that in the sombre second half there was a little more enchantment.
South Pacific is at Sadler’s Wells until 28 August and tours the UK and Ireland from 13 September. For more information visit sadlerswells.com and for great deals on tickets and shows click here.