Lincoln Center Theater production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific at Barbican Theatre

South Pacific
Musical with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, based on James A. Michener’s short story collection Tales from the South Pacific

Nellie Forbush – Samantha Womack
Emile de Becque – Paulo Szot
Luther Billis – Alex Ferns
Bloody Mary – Loretta Ables Sayre
Henry – Eddie Elliott
Professor – Luke Kempner
Stewpot – Cameron Jack
Seabees / Sailors / Marines – James Austen-Murray, Chris Bennett, Lawrence Carmichael, Stephen John Davis, Nyron Levy, Dean Maynard, Adam Pritchard, Dominic Smith, Mikel Sylvanus, Danny Whitehead & Nick Wyschna
Head Nurse – Jacqueline Tate
Dinah – Mairi Cowieson
Nurses – Jill Armour, Carly Anderson, Maria Lawson & Bleu Woodward
Lt Joseph Cable – Daniel Koek
Commander Harbison – Dominic Taylor
Captain Brackett – Nigel Williams
Quale – Danny Whitehead
Liat – Elizabeth Chong
Adams – Nick Wyschna
Shore Patrolman – Dean Maynard
Swings – Lisa Dent, Matthew Crowe & Chris Jenkins

The Orchestra
Jae Alexander

Bartlett Sher – Director
Christopher Gattelli – Musical Staging
Ted Sperling – Musical Supervisor
Michael Yeargan – Set Designer
Catherine Zuber – Costume Designer
Donald Holder – Lighting Designer
Scott Lehrer – Sound Designer
Robert Russell Bennett – Original Orchestrations
Trude Rittman – Dance & Incidental Music Arrangements

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 25 August, 2011
Venue: Barbican Theatre, London

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical version of James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific was, like its source material, a Pulitzer Prize-winner. In the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon, South Pacific followed Oklahoma! (1943), then Carousel and the film of State Fair (both from 1945), and the less-popular, more-experimental Allegro (1947). Director Joshua Logan had read the Michener stories and asked R & H to turn them into a musical show. It became one of its most-successful shows, staying on Broadway for almost five years. It featured Mary Martin as nurse Nellie Forbush and Ezio Pinza as Emile de Becque. There were revivals in New York in 1955, 1967 and 1987 and now this Lincoln Center production arrives at the Barbican Theatre. London had the original production in 1951 with Martin (and later Julie Wilson). There were London revivals with Gemma Craven and Emile Belcourt in 1988, and Trevor Nunn directed the National Theatre production in 2001. The 1958 film with Mitzi Gaynor and Rosanno Brazzi was a huge hit, not least in London where it played at the Dominion for eight years.

Attitudes to racial discrimination and interracial marriage have changed since 1949, so South Pacific must be seen as a product of its time. Based on Michener’s own observations, the action takes place on two islands in the South Pacific during World War Two. American Naval Ensign Forbush from Little Rock, Arkansas, meets and falls in love with Emile de Becque, a French plantation-owner living with the two children he fathered with his late Polynesian wife. Another strand of the story concerns Joe Cable, a young US Marine lieutenant who has fallen for a local girl, Liat, whose mother, Bloody Mary, an unscrupulous seller of grass-skirts to the US Seabees, encourages her daughter to marry a sailor for a better chance in life.

The show depicts these love-affairs in some of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s most-famous and -enduring songs, namely ‘A cockeyed optimist’, ‘Some enchanted evening’, ‘I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair’, ‘I’m in love with a wonderful guy’, ‘Bali Ha’i’, ‘Younger than springtime’ and ‘This nearly was mine’. The music and the lyrics stand the test of time, even if the book and the characterisations now seem stereotypical. Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestrations underscore the action and the emotions, although some of the dialogue is rather stilted. At three hours the show also seems a tad protracted with the naval scenes giving it a decided dip in the second Act. The comic relief comes with the antics of the Seabees, Sailors and Marines, especially so in ‘There is nothing like a dame’. However, although the chorus of hunks do a grand job, since Morecambe & Wise commandeered the number thirty years ago in a Christmas show, it is difficult not to be reminded of that performance by the line-up of BBC newsreaders and commentators singing and hoofing to the best of their abilities.

Although the Barbican staging is heralded as the Lincoln Center Theater production of South Pacific, it only fields two of the original cast. They are the best parts of the staging. Paulo Szot, currently resident at the Metropolitan Opera, makes Emile de Becque a real hero just through the power of his terrifically deep voice. No, it’s more than just deep, it’s profound. These rich tones are heart-stopping with a real tingle factor in a performance of sheer magnitude. The other Lincoln alumna is Loretta Ables Sayre, a brilliant singer and a great comedy player who makes Bloody Mary almost loveable even in her worst moments of chicanery and double-dealing.

It is difficult, however, for the British contingent to match up to the American cast members. Rodgers & Hammerstein tailored their songs for the personality and charisma of their stars. It is difficult for Samantha Womack (ex-EastEnders) as Nellie to make her character fully-rounded in a way that sees the nurse as both gauche and yet endearing. It’s a perfectly acceptable musical performance but not one that has much fun in it. Even her big number, ‘I’m gonna wash that man…’, goes for little. Mary Martin claimed she rinsed her hair every night and twice on matinee days, although I suspect she wore a wig. Surely Womack could don a ‘syrup’ and make her shampoo sessions more sporting and believable.

The large supporting cast is headed by Alex Ferns (ex-EastEnders!) as Luther Billis, the crafty, ducking and diving conman of a sailor who brings a touch of humour to proceedings. However, many of the other characters are stock naval types and make some of the action and dialogue rather leaden. The staging by Christopher Gattelli enlivens the show to a certain extent but it never reaches any great heights of exuberance. With all those thrilling numbers, and especially in Bennett’s orchestrations, played with gusto, the roof of the Barbican should be raised at every performance. Sadly this is not so and this potentially great production is disappointing.

  • South Pacific is at the Barbican Theatre, Silk Street, London EC2Y until Saturday 1 October 2011
  • Monday to Saturday 7.30 p.m., matinees Thursday & Saturday 2.30
  • Jason Howard as Emile de Becque, 29 August-21 September
  • Tickets on 0844 243 0785
  • Barbican

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