Reviving an old classic is always difficult, and a musical with a plot firmly set in the beliefs of a society totally different to today is even tougher. However, the recent return of South Pacific to the stage makes such a task look easy, with Lincoln Centre Theatre combining a lively and entertaining display with stunning scenery to create a worthy return.
Based on a collection of short stories written by James A. Michener, the play centres on the life of American marines and nurses stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II, and the racial prejudice that the developing relationships encounter. The issue of racism is dealt with sensitively in a few thought-provoking songs, such as ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’ which argues that you are taught as a child to have a racist ideology, and it is not something we are inherently born with.
Alongside the serious issues explored, there are a number of vibrant songs such as the famous ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair’ and ‘Bloody Mary’. These were given a wonderful performance by the theatre, with leading lady Samantha Womack — better known for playing Ronnie in Eastenders — showing a fantastic singing voice which slightly made up for her unfortunate lack of dancing. I was wonderfully surprised by this, cautious of celebrities being used to increase box office sales, but she brought a lively, entertaining Nellie Forbush to the stage. The leading man, and Nellie’s love interest Emile de Beque, was played by Paulo Szot and Jason Howard. Szot amazed the audience with his strong tenor voice which lifted the notes of his solos perfectly, and his calm ease captured the character perfectly. I just wish his French accent was as good as Womack’s American enunciation.
The other characters were also well cast, with strong performances from Loretta Ables as Bloody Mary and the slightly comical Polynesian women. The male chorus was superb, with strong voices and each member showing a lively character onstage that helped create the feel-good atmosphere of the play.
I was also very impressed with the quality of the stage craft. Although there was sadly only a small amount of dancing, what was there was excellently choreographed, and the choruses of marines and nurses all danced very well, especially during the Thanksgiving performance scene. The set was well designed, with the clever use of wooden blinds and excellent effects for the appearance of the mysterious island of Bali Ha’i, and for the planes passing overhead. The music was well conducted by Ted Sperling, and the compositions
perfectly mirrored the songs, with wonderful music for the island of Bali Ha’i and the thoughtful Some Enchanted Evening.
Director Bartlett Sher definitely brought a splendid revival to the musical, with sell-out performances most nights and excellent critical reviews, for a very deserving show.