South Pacific…..or the salutatory tale of a cockeyed optimist afloat in choppy waters….
To those who know South Pacific only either through the film or from a recording it may appear to be simply another of those cloyingly saccharin musicals with their predictably formulaic books and lyrics. Nothing could be further from the truth and that truth is captured in many aspects of this production that’s transferred from the Lincoln Centre Theatre NYC to the Barbican in London.
Roger’s and Hammerstein already had Oklahoma and Carousel under their belts when in 1949 South Pacific hit Broadway. These earlier works had dealt with the destructiveness of irrational prejudices against social outsiders. They challenged the mean-spirited narrowness of prejudice. They posited that they’d have no place in the better world being forged in war by America and her allies.
These themes find their boldest expression in South Pacific. And that boldness is still quite shocking. Straightforwardly, we are given two sets of lovers – from very different social and cultural origins – who each must face down the normative racism of their upbringing to find true love. In our time with them on the exotic atolls of the South Pacific that’s just what they have to do. It’s dramatically and musically intense.
In the segregated and institutionally racist USA (and Europe) of 1949 that’s a hell of an ask – let alone a sell as a family entertainment. In South Pacific Rogers and Hammerstein champion multiculturalism long before the word was even coined. More, movingly and tellingly they make us take a hard look at our basest knee-jerk prejudices while beguiling our ears with some of their most wonderful lyrics and inventive music. In the end, like Nellie Forbush and Lieutenant Jo Cable we’re persuaded to leave our prejudices behind for the elusive promise of Bali Ha’i.
The theme stirred something deep both in the lyricist and composer. Rogers writes one of his most convincing scores. All the principles are endowed with wonderfully characterised music. And in this production the orchestra played that music up a storm. And what a storm of grand music there is to whip up….as one show stopping tune topples over another. This is high octane stuff…even today. And amongst the gold there’s so many classics…This Nearly Was mine…Some Enchanted Evening…Wonderful Guy…Honey Bun…and does any song in the musical genre ever better capture of sublime tender closeness of sexual love than Younger than Springtime?
The set was inventive….simple and bold. At its best the staging was also possessed of those same touches of pure gold that run through the show. The ensembles for men (Bloody Mary and There is Nothing Like a Dame) sound absolutely right even if the gymnastics seemed a bit wobbly at the edges. The ensembles for the women (I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right out of my Hair and Wonderful Guy) were equally as well sung if also a little wanting in the detail of their execution.
All these great Roger and Hammerstein shows are American musicals ‘par excellence’. Their excellence comes in large part from their emotional directness. It’s that which in South Pacific packs the knock-out punch delivered in the series of show-stopping tunes, brilliantly orchestrated that directly touch the rawest of human emotions….love. All these characters speak their truest feelings in their music.
But their words are as unreserved as their songs. We like the tunes… no, we love the tunes but we are less in tune with the characters’ heart-on-your-sleeve un-ironic American directness. This poses a challenge for any British cast. It’s this challenge to which this cast is unable to rise.
It’s not helped by the four principles. They competently sing and dance their way through the evening without ever coming close to acting as if they’re remotely enchanted with each other. They lack intensity; they lack conviction; they lack chemistry. Loretta Abel Sayers Bloody Mary had her moments. But her Tonkinese was at times rooted in the cliché of the Chinese Take-away. And her passion for her daughter to marry well but marry for love didn’t emerge with any clarity. Her dialogue before Happy Talk when she wants to work to let the young ones make love and be happy…should be movingly poignant. It was a bit lost. No more lost than Elizabeth Chong’s Liat. A non-singing non speaking part in a musical isn’t easy to bring off. But this lotus blossom never opened on stage and therefore never looked in love with Jo. Her hand dance was Happy Talk that said nothing very much.
Few actors have Meryl Streep’s skill to anchor character in an accent. The whole cast tries too hard to sound American at the expense of sounding convincing. The effort of speaking (and even weirdly singing) in hybridised American accents robbed much of what they said and sang of genuine emotion. Samantha Womack tried hard to let herself go but unfortunately she never found the spontaneity that’s at the heart of Nellie Forbush. Daniel Koek sang sweetly; he looked great without his shirt but his was an essentially passionless account of Joe Cable. It didn’t stir the heart or touch the soul. The best of them was Jason Howard’s powerfully sung Emil de Becque. He’s got the voice but this Nellie left him alone and still dreaming of paradise….
Needless to say everyone of them had microphones taped to them….Koek’s being most cruelly exposed in his shirtless Younger than Springtime. Am I alone in thinking that singers in a musical should be able to fill a theatre with their voice? And in digging deep vocally perhaps an actor will also locate the emotional heart of the character. Technology may make any voice big enough to fill a theatre but it doesn’t make anyone big enough to hold a show.
So it was hard to believe Daniel Koek’s Lieutenant Cable would have come back to marry Liat; harder to believe Liat would have refused to marry anyone else but Joe; yet harder to believe that the little flat feet of Samantha Womack’s Nellie could have danced their way up the hill and into the heart of this Emil de Becque; hardest of all to believe that any one of them would willingly have left a bowl of jell-o; or a slice of blueberry pie; or paid employment making grass skirts to spend an single enchanted evening in each other’s company….let alone a lifetime of them.
This South Pacific didn’t blow me away. It was underpowered. It felt oddly becalmed. If stranded on some south sea atoll it’s not at all clear you’d get a boat to this Bali Ha’i. I fear you might throw caution to the wind and swim in the other direction.