The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 28th August, 2022
The Chichester Festival Theatre production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic comes to town and it’s an absolute must-see. The score reads like a Greatest Hits playlist. So many great numbers, many of which have become standards. Hearing them within the context of the drama renews their impact.
Set in World War II on an island outpost where the US Navy is itching for conflict with the Japanese, this is at heart a double love story, where both relationships are blighted by ingrained prejudice. We have firecracker hick Nellie Forbush falling for the urbane and educated plantation owner Emile de Becque, and handsome young lieutenant Joe Cable having his head turned by Liat, the beautiful daughter of camp follower Bloody Mary. Joe feels unable to marry the girl because of the way things are ‘back home’; Nellie is horrified to discover the late mother of Emile’s kids was, gulp, coloured. The revelation of Nellie’s racism comes as a real kicker at the end of Act One. This lively, perky girl, the life and soul of any gathering, who has entertained us and earned our affection is tainted by one of the most stupid attitudes going. It’s a real blow, like finding out someone you otherwise admire votes Tory.
Sad to say, the show’s message is just as relevant today. Cable’s song, You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught gets to the root of a problem that still plagues society today.
As the suave Emile, Julian Ovenden oozes romance. Some Enchanted Evening has never sounded lovelier or more seductive. Gina Beck’s Nellie is irresistible, funny and perky, with her heart on her sleeve, her vocals both belting and nuanced. Rob Houchen’s Cable is spot on: the handsome young officer, dutiful and yet in love. Houchen’s voice is surely the finest working in musical theatre today. Sublime.
Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary brings plenty of comic relief, as does Douggie McMeekin’s Luther Billis. Ampil’s impassioned pleas to Cable to give her daughter a better life are heart-breaking, and her rendition of Bali Ha’i is bewitching.
The big chorus numbers are stirring: There is Nothing Like a Dame, by the men, and I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair, by the women. This production goes all out to deliver the goods. Ann Yee’s choreography, especially for the marines, is energetic, hoe-down like without being camp, and there are plenty of exotic touches to evoke the island setting.
Romantic, thrilling and humorous, with a strong social comment, South Pacific reasserts itself as a pinnacle of musical theatre in this magnificent production that hits all the right notes, musically and emotionally.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Cable guy Rob Houchen and hair-washer Gina Beck (Photo: Johan Persson)