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A CurtainUp London Review
The first thing that strikes you about this musical is the low key opening scene with the cutesy "Dites Moi" from the De Becque children. We have to wait quite some time for a big show number — "There Is Nothing Like A Dame." Instead all of Scene One centres on Emile entertaining Nellie in his plantation mansion. On the vast Barbican stage with the spacious South Seas residence, the two actors seemed dwarfed and although their singing is undoubtedly strong their interest in each other seemed rather limited.
Critics at the first press night were told that Ms Womack had hurt two of her toes which would affect some of the dance routines. Well. . . unless she feels the romance in her toes, we wonder why when Emile sings the soaring love song that is "Some Enchanted Evening" the director Bartlett Sher has allowed Nellie to face the audience rather than Emile. Of course, the book doesn’t help or augur well for their relationship with Emile’s stated interest in esoteric 19th century French novelists like Marcel Proust and Nellie’s background in Little Rock and as a military nurse.
The only problem with Nellie as our heroine is her reaction to Emile’s marriage and his mixed race children. In contrast with her reaction to Emile’s revelation about his Polynesian wife is her earlier dismissal of the confession that he left France because he murdered a man. I think Momma Forbush might have had some doubts about her son in law! To quote Nellie "And she thinks . . . . every man you’ve met out here is either a savage with a ring in his nose or a roué."
The other love story between Bloody Mary’s daughter Liat (Elizabeth Chong) and the Princeton educated Lieutenant Cable (Daniel Koek) is fated to flounder when Cable recognises that Liat is not wife material. This storyline has resonances of Madame Butterfly and Lieutenant Pinkerton. The cover of the programme is "after Gauguin" who in recent years has been criticised for the sexual relationships he had with children in French Polynesia which leads me to wonder how old Liat is.
Besides my childhood viewing of the movie I saw the show, in the mid 1990s at the Churchill Theatre Bromley where I was entranced by the fabulous tunes and the South Seas setting and I reviewed Trevor Nunn’s production at the National Theatre in 2001 where Nellie was exposed as a redneck racist. If we remember that New Yorkers had not seen this musical with its sumptuous score since 1949, that may go some way towards explaining the ecstasy with which it was received sixty years later in 2008. Those who saw it in New York have said that this touring production is somewhat scaled down. For Elyse Sommer’s review in New York which includes a song list go here.
Certainly I didn’t get the feeling that we were in the South Seas and of course the audience applauding every number interferes with the flow. Also we have to remember that a largely British cast needs extra concentration to maintain the American accents, in song as well as voice.
With the major niggles out of the way let’s concentrate on this production’s strengths. Paul Szot is a very fine baritone indeed and in South Pacific are some of the best tunes written by Rogers and Hammerstein. Samantha Womack too is charming in the single girl’s anthem "I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" although we wish she got a little wetter in the shower — but maybe that would damage the wig mike! I liked too Daniel Koek’s Lieutenant Cable and the acting of the sometimes predatory, stalking American officers, Nigel Williams as Captain Brackett and Dominic Taylor as Commander Harbison. When the sailors appear onstage together the black actors stay in their own group which is authentic in period and finds them on top of a realistic looking aircraft.
The stagecraft of the operations scene is outstanding and exciting; we hear the noise of aircraft engines and see these headlights swirling onstage which then change into the desk lamps of the planning operation desks with a backdrop of the map of the islands. The orchestra too is magnificent with its jaunty conductor, Jae Alexander.
There are so many out there who love the score of this musical. Therefore I am sure they will enjoy a fabulous evening of wonderful songs beautifully sung.
Please note that Paul Szot plays Emile from 15 August to 27 August and again from 22 September to 1 October. Jason Howard will take over the role from 29 August to 21 September.
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