This 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic pays homage to its roots but also stays terrifyingly relevant. The marvellous choreography and a female-focused story deliver a fun night out, with some questions to open a deeper discussion about on your way home, long after the curtain call.
A Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 73 year-young classic
I was entering the Sadler’s Wells hall both excited but also slightly worried. “South Pacific” is a musical classic, but it’s also turning 73 years old this year, Would the war and racism portrayal still resonate with the audience or would it be simply deemed too old school and cringy to be enjoyed? Some 40s and 50s plays aged badly, with the way they portrayed traditional roles of women in society, marriage violence, and general lack of sensitivity. Luckily, with this Chichester Theatre production, it’s not the case.
“South Pacific” is a musical rom-com, but with an additional depth. We are transported to the islands of the Pacific during the II world war. Americans are stationed on one of the small local islands to gather intelligence in the area. At the same time, two romances bloom: between a local girl Liat and an American lieutenant Cable, and between a nurse and a French plantation owner. But can a relationship between two very different people even be possible? Especially when Emil (the plantation owner) reveals that he has children from his past relationship with a local woman (a shocking finding to Nellie the nurse, who discovers she holds traditional views on racial harmony, or rather lack of it).
Outstanding vocal performances in “South Pacfic”
Julian Ovenden’s voice is a powerhouse that carries the whole production. His solo in “Some Enchanted Evening” (especially in the reprise, ending act 1), had so many emotions and power, they could proudly carry on the legacy of this classic musical.
In this rendition of the show, the audience gets to spend more time with the female part of the cast. I was enchanted with the opening sequence, giving more spotlight to the native dance, and eventually contrasting it with a strong male element of GI s surrounding the dancer. Both American and Polynesian heroines get enough stage time for us to understand their cultures and motivations, which is a huge plus. My standout performances among the women have to be awarded to Joanna Ampil (Bloody Mary) and Sera Maehara (Liat) – both with limited speaking parts, but fabulous expressions and dance parts delivered.
Stage design that transports you right on a Pacific Island
Costumes and stage design – wow! The ideas and possibly budget here were second to none. A military base, a secluded island, a small idyllic terrace of Emil’s plantation – all these places appear on the stage within seconds, with minor help of the revolving stage.
Thanks to Howard Harrison’s delightful light design, even the most simple scenes, like the tribal dance performed by the women in the round, surrounded by fire, grow into epic proportions.
It is a lengthy production (2 hours 50 minutes), with a respectable set of 17 songs. However, the time just passes by really fast, and especially in the second act, when the stakes start to grow and a life-and-death situation materialises, I didn’t even feel when the show speed up and suddenly it was time for the curtain call.
It’s rare for a production that’s considered “retro” to still carry so much relevance. Most of the plays from the ’50s either feel incredibly cringy or, with the topics touched and their old-school attitude are just not acceptable for the progressive 2022 audience. “South Pacific”, luckily, stood the test of time pretty well. Mostly thanks to the iconic “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”, which is still considered a strong empowerment song, as well as the play, ‘s sadly relevant racial theme present, it’s still a play that has a very high “watchability” factor. 10/10 would watch again!
2 hours 50 minutes (including one 20 minute interval)
Prices from: £15.00
Playing until 28 August 2022