Category Archives: revue

Ocean of Emotion

SOUTH PACIFIC

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)


Straight Acting

I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 17th August, 2022

Less of a musical and more of a revue, this show which has enjoyed one of the longest runs in American theatre history, charts, through unconnected scenes, songs and vignettes, the course of love (true, or otherwise) of heterosexual people.  When theatre holds up a mirror to life, it either validates what it shows or poses questions.  Many people (straight ones) will recognise something of themselves in the character types and cliched moments on view, but from a queer perspective, the show takes on a completely different meaning.  This is what your lives are like, the show tells straight people, and you are living a narrow nightmare of convention, societal expectations and guilt trips.  The laughter of recognition should be followed through by a cringe or two at the very least. 

The cast of six (customarily the piece is performed by four) work hard to pull it off, and it requires a certain set of skills to swiftly establish characters and emotions at the drop of a hat.  Every member of this sextet has the talent, the skill – and the considerable energy it takes! – to deliver this demanding cavalcade of songs and sketches.

Jimmy Roberts’s score is serviceable rather than memorable, containing a variety of styles.  Some standout numbers include I Will Be Loved Tonight performed by Hannah Lyons, and Hey There, Single Gal/Guy in which a pair of disappointed parents lay a guilt trip on their son and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend.

Recognising the undiluted heteronormativity of the piece, directors Mark Shaun Walsh and Neve Lawler give one of the songs an LGBTQ+ twist, showing that the gays can have long-term relationships too, and have the same fears and doubts as everyone else.  The number Shouldn’t I Be Less In Love With You, is beautifully sung by Walsh, and this feels like one of those moments of validation I talked about.  This tweak broadens the scope of the material.

There is also some relief where single life is not depicted as a terrible condition that must be cured as soon as possible: the second act opener Always A Bridesmaid has the wonderful Kimberley Maynard revelling in her independence in a rousing countryfied number.

Some of the material is old hat (men not stopping to ask for directions) but some of it is acutely observant.  The monologue of a divorced woman making a dating video is painfully funny and superbly delivered by Hannah Lyons.  It also goes to show how the world has moved on from the world of the show, now that apps like Tinder dominate the dating experience.  The libretto could do with an update to make it more directly relevant.

The cast take full advantage of this opportunity to showcase their skills: Jack Kirby as a husband and father who has transferred his affections to his car; Luke Plimmer and Anya McCutcheon Wells as a pair of elderly people meeting at a funeral, in the show’s most sentimental sequence.  All in all, it’s flawlessly presented, with musical duo Chris Arnold (piano) and Lizi Toney (violin) giving virtuoso performances of the score’s diverse demands.

Given the almost relentless parodying of heterosexuality, I write in the notebook I keep on my knee, “Is the writer gay?”.  At home I look up Joe DiPietro.  He is.  Ten points to me!

An enjoyable evening of laughter, with the occasional poignant moment.  To sum up: I liked it, it’s imperfect, needs change.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆