THE ATMOSPHERE on press night at Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre was buzzing with the nervous excitement – understandable as this was the first night of the national tour of Chichester Festival Theatre’s award winning production of ‘South Pacific’.
A half hour delay to opening the doors only added to the anticipation. Whilst no doubt it was technically tense back stage, front of house handled the lateness with smiles and a ‘we’re all in this together’ spirit. The joy in the voice of the duty manager when she announced the auditorium was now open brought grins all round.
Whilst the West End was still in lockdown, Director Daniel Evans was the first to put his head over the parapets with this large cast/full orchestra new working of a musical classic.
As the pandemic still raged, rehearsals had to be strictly socially distanced with soloists wearing visors. The show opened in July 2021 to a sea of brave patrons bedecked in blue face masks and ended in joyous celebration of cast and audience.
The writer of ‘South Pacific’ Oscar Hammerstein II wove his anti-racism views cleverly into this classic love story. It’s remarkable that this was 73 years ago when civil rights movements were but whispered.
Today, when they are shouted, his words and lyrics are not only a good story and a classic catalogue of songs but remain a relevant message to us all.
The action takes place on a sleepy Pacific island where Unite States navy and air force await news of what the Japanese enemy are up to.
Ensign Nellie Forbush played and sung with charisma and passion by wondrous soprano Gina Beck starts off singing she’s ‘In Love With A Wonderful Guy’ – but changes her mind when she finds the ‘guy’ is a widower with mixed race children.
The ‘wonderful guy’ in question is French plantation owner Emile de Becque – this is powerhouse of a performance from glorious tenor Julian Ovenden. He also gets for me the best line in the show when talking to Commander William Harbison (Stephen John Davis) – “We know what you’re against – but what are you for?” Methinks this is a question for many powerful folk today.
Alongside this bruising of hearts between Emile and Nellie is another love duo twixt Polynesian native girl Liat and seconded to the island army Lt Joseph Cable. Here the young soldier cannot overcome the colour prejudice drummed into him back in the land of apple pie. Love, it seems, cannot conquer all,
Ballerina Sera Maehara plays Liat – it’s a spellbinding performance, almost silent and a delicate cross between mime and dance. Hers is a story within a story. The final moment of the show is a snap black out with Liat airborne, leaping probably to her death. This got a ‘wow’ from me.
Rob Houchen brings a matinee idol feel to the troubled young lieutenant. Having broken up with Liat, he chums up with the equally distraught Emile and together they embark on a near suicide mission to spot what the Japanese are up to. Unlike Emile, poor Joe doesn’t make it back.
Joe does get to sing the most poignant if not memorable number in the show though, along with Emile – that’s ‘You’ve Got To be Carefully Taught’ – a should-be anthem about racial bigotry.
Joanna Ampil brings an angry freshness to the role of Bloody Mary. Particularly evident when she knocks all the sweetness out of ‘Happy Talk’ and turns into a question.
The late start and obvious technical hitches, especially with lighting made the first 3o minutes not exactly sparkle but by the end of Act One the barometer was showing hot. Come Act Two it bubbled and for the last ten minutes – erupted – earning a well-deserved standing ovation.
Peter McKintosh’s set was like many others I have seen recently, a huge tin box. Here the back consists of floor to ceiling corrugated iron, which opens to allow set piece furniture to truck on and off. The sides are I think supposed to be camouflaged aircraft hanger doors.
Whilst this allows for free flowing movement, I craved Palm trees and blue pacific skies.
Equally the floor was boarded with criss-cross planks – was I alone in wanting sand?
The centre of the stage was a huge revolve which seemed to be in constant use to the point of sending off waves of motion sickness. I suppose this was a clever way of getting movement through revolving stillness when this was blocked in Covid.
Equally Anne Yee’s choreography has much socially distanced dancing round in circles presumably for the same reason. Though her ‘Nothing Like A Dame’ and ‘Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair ‘ are both full-on touchy-feely brash bashes.
‘Dark’ is an apt description for this production and as such it touches all the right nerves. The text was not ever intended to be comfortable nor literally are the characters with their own skin.
It ends as happily as it can and more in triumph than schmaltz. I’d definitely go again as there is so much to take in on one sitting.
The show runs until Saturday, October 1 – Click here for times, tickets and more information.