Sunday 31 July 2022

South Pacific: Stupendous performances from Julian Ovenden & Gina Beck head this striking new version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic

Rodgers & Hammerstein: South Pacific - Julian Ovenden, Gina Beck - Chichester Festival Theatre, 2021 (Photo Johann Persson)
Rodgers & Hammerstein: South Pacific - Julian Ovenden, Gina Beck - Chichester Festival Theatre, 2021 (Photo Johann Persson)

Rodgers & Hammerstein: South Pacific; Julian Ovenden, Gina Beck, Joanna Ampil, Rob Houchen, director Daniel Evans; Chichester Festival Theatre production at Sadler's Wells
Reviewed 30 July 2022 (★★★★★)

A striking reinvention of Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic that reflects its big Broadway roots as well as the story's remarkable complexity

That Rodgers and Hammerstein could write belting songs can sometimes disguise the fact that they used their shows to examine complex issues. They effectively reworked the American musical into a genre that could tell serious stories, integrating music, drama, song and dance. That the structure of their pieces can be somewhat formulaic and that they reflect social attitudes of the time should not hide their remarkable achievement. We all remember South Pacific for its songs, some of the greatest in American musical theatre, but who on hearing a fine rendering of 'This nearly was mine' remembers that Emile is singing it because the woman he loves has just told him she can't marry him because she cannot accept that his previous wife was a local, Polynesian girl. And this song comes in a scene where Lieutenant Cable, recognising his own prejudices, has the musical's most remarkable song, 'You've got to be carefully taught'. A song that caused problems during the musical's early runs but which Rodgers and Hammerstein refused to cut.

Daniel Evans' production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific debuted last year (2021) at the Chichester Festival Theatre, it has now arrived at Sadler's Wells Theatre for a month's run with many of the original cast. Julian Ovenden was Emile, Gina Beck was Nellie, with Joanna Ampil as Bloody Mary, Robe Houchen as Lieutenant Cable, Douggie McMeekin as Luther Billis and Sera Maehara as Liat. Designs were by Peter Mckintosh, choreography by Ann Yee, the musical director was Cat Beveridge, orchestrations by David Cullen, sound design by Paul Groothuis, video by Gillian Tan and lighting by Howard Harrison. (Note, the photos were taken from the 2021 run at Chichester).

Rodgers & Hammerstein: South Pacific - Sara Maehara, Rob Houchen- Chichester Festival Theatre, 2021 (Photo Johann Persson)
Rodgers & Hammerstein: South Pacific - Sera Maehara, Rob Houchen- Chichester Festival Theatre, 2021 (Photo Johann Persson)

Daniel Evans and Ann Yee have deliberately sought to refocus the work without changing its essentials. Key to this was their approach to the piece's two most problematic characters, Liat (Sera Maehara) and Bloody Mary (Joanna Ampil). Here, the production makes it clear that the Bloody Mary we see in the first scene trading with the American servicemen is a construct, designed to entertain the soldiers and sell more goods. Later Ampil strips off the make-up and reveals Bloody Mary to simply be a woman who will do anything to provide her daughter (Liat) with a better life. And that daughter is incarnated by dancer Sera Maehara so that throughout the piece, we 'hear' from Liat far more than in a traditional production via expressive dance. The love scene between Liat (Maehara) and Lieutenant Cable (Rob Houchen) becomes far more balanced.

Of course, any production relies on the two principals. The role of Emile was written for Ezio Pinza, the great Italian operatic bass who had recently retired from the Metropolitan Opera. Nellie was written for the major musical theatre star, Mary Martin, and it was reputedly Martin's nervousness at singing with a distinguished operatic talent that led to one of the musical's striking features, the two principals never get a full on duet.

The important thing to recognise for Emile was that it was written for an older singer (Pinza was in his mid-50s when the musical debuted) who could make you fall in love with him as soon as he opened his mouth. Any singer in the role not only needs to be able to hold a tune, they need to be able to sing expressively. And one of the strengths of the production was the way it recognised this. All four principals, Ovenden, Beck, Ampil, Houchen really sang their music, supported by lavish orchestrations using a 16 piece band. This was big stuff, yet it was dramatic too, though I still have a hankering to hear the original Trude Rittmann and Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations.

At the show's climactic moment, when Ovenden's Emile sang 'This nearly was mine', Ovenden didn't give us a belted out torch song, his performance was fuelled by anger and bitterness, combined with a finely sung line. A truly remarkable performance, and a mesmerising one. From the opening notes of the Twin Solioquies for Nellie and Emile, which lead into 'Some Enchanted Evening' it was clear that Ovenden's voice was part of the drama, he could do with it what he wished. Yes, his Emile was perhaps younger than Rodgers and Hammerstein intended with a lighter cast to the timbre, but what counted was the way he created the character. This Emile was complex, and very seductive.

This was balanced by Gina Beck's Nellie. Beck can belt out 'I'm gonna wash that man right outa my hair' and 'Honey Bun' with the best of them, but Nellie's character goes on a complex journey, and Beck's performance reflected this. And Nellie's emotional development was demonstrated through Beck's remarkably expressive musical achievements.

This is a musically complex work, the first act (which lasted some 90 minutes) has some 16 musical numbers, plus prologue and two reprises. The shorter second act includes five new musical numbers with only two reprises. That is a lot of music, and sometimes the musical numbers come helter skelter. Yes, this is a musical, but music plays a bigger role than in some.

The rest of the cast supported this sense of music and drama. Ampil gave a remarkable performance as Bloody Mary, perhaps the most striking moment was the reinvention of 'Happy Talk' as something quietly desperate as she knows that she will fail in her bid to get Lieutenant Cable to marry Liat. Rob Houchen as Cable not only brought a fine lyric tenor to 'Younger than Springtime', but he made the character go on a bitter journey, reflected in 'You've got to be carefully taught', and had the dance skills to partner Sera Maehara in what can only be described as a pas de deux. 

Douggie McMeekin was a complete delight as Luther Billis, the comic character who somehow encapsulated the desperation that must have been felt by all the enlisted men confined on the island. 

The work's two big chorus numbers also showed an admirable willingness to not simply repeat Broadway tropes. 'There is nothing' like a Dame' had a remarkable up-front quality that made the men's desperation clear and at times verged on angry. Whilst 'I'm gonna wash that man right outa my hair' used dance steps that the 1940s ensigns might have been expected to know in a glorious mash up. There wasn't a tap-dancing chorine in sight and the show was better for it.

One of the strengths was the fact that the ensemble was made up of strong individual characters, and it is a large ensemble, each one distinct and part of the drama. David Birrell and Stephen John Davis were both complete delights as the camp commanders. 

The two children, Jerome and Ngana, were each triple cast so I don't know who I saw but they were both charming and musical, holding their own in the show's opening number 'Dites-moi'.

The production had a lovely fluidity to it. The whole took place in a hangar-like space that was fitted out for each scene, but scenes bled into each other, often the chorus erupting over departing set. This meant that there was always a fine flow to things, we never stopped. There were some striking coups de theatre. The overture was done as a dance sequence for Liat (Sera Maehara) suddenly interrupted by the arrival of the American forces, across, down and everywhere. And at the end, the frantic preparations for the troops departure had a stationery, bewildered Bloody Mary (Joanna Ampil) at their centre.

The sound design had nice naturalistic feel to it, granted the big ensemble numbers were loud, but there was none of the feeling of sound being amped up for the sake of it that you can often get with modern musicals. And Sound Pacific is one of the few musicals that I have heard done acoustically (at Grange Park Opera).

Rodgers & Hammerstein: South Pacific - Joanna Ampil & ensemble - Chichester Festival Theatre, 2021 (Photo Johann Persson)
Rodgers & Hammerstein: South Pacific - Joanna Ampil & ensemble - Chichester Festival Theatre, 2021 (Photo Johann Persson)

This was a big show (over 30 on stage) and what I enjoyed about it was that Evans and Yee have reinvented a large-scale musical without turning it into something else. This was a big Broadway show that reflected its roots but where all sorts of details had been rethought and reworked to created something the same but different. And anchored by a group of truly remarkable performances

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