The fantastic songs in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 musical make any revival a must. The love between plantation owner Emile (Julian Ovenden) and army nurse Nellie (Gina Beck), with war as a backdrop, is hopelessly romantic. Get ready to swoon. Does the show’s message against racism make up for its misogyny and militarism? Well, no. But there are moments in this production when I thought Julian Ovenden’s singing could solve all the world’s problems.
Daniel Evans’ production, from the Chichester Festival Theatre, tries hard to focus on the indigenous characters of the islands that the action takes place on. Strong choreography by Ann Yee helps.
Bloody Mary, who sells tourist tat to the troops, becomes a forceful character in Joanna Ampil’s portrayal. Her desperation to marry her daughter off to a rich American is moving. The focus for the show’s second romance becomes Mary and her daughter Liat (Sera Maehara) rather than the suitor, Lt. Joseph Cable. That’s a shame for Rob Houchen, who does a good job in the role, but it’s a deft shift of focus.
The show’s humour is a problem, though. The role of maverick sailor Luther Billis is an unhappy one – I guess the intention was to be endearing? As it stands, the part just makes the book (by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan) seem flabby. Evans downplays the show within a show (I wonder if the idea was a stab at realism), which is disappointing if understandable – there’s a lack of action overall, so the show can drag.
As for the nurses stationed with the troops… these “dames” are nothing more than a chorus (albeit a good one). It’s only Beck’s quirky delivery that raises any smiles – she’s good at this – while her fear of miscegenation is depicted in a suitably shocking manner. You couldn’t call Nellie a well-rounded character, but Beck does a good job with her.
It is with romance that South Pacific wins. And this production knows that. Beck enforces Nellie’s charm and she sounds wonderful. As for Ovenden – his voice has never been better and the role should surely be career defining. Every rendition of Some Enchanted Evening gave me goosebumps. This Nearly Was Mine is a long and difficult song, but I hoped for an ovation. It’s a surprisingly understated performance that comes from tremendous confidence and power. Ovenden’s expressive voice makes the whole production not be missed.
Until 28 August 2022
Photos by Johan Persson