Juxtaposing the lushness of the piece with an underlying threat of violent bigotry, Daniel Evans’ vibrant production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC emphasises the anti-racist message of the 1949 Broadway hit.
Following a successful run in 2021, Chichester Festival Theatre’s critically acclaimed production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC launches at Manchester’s Opera House this week, directly before a London season.
Set on a South Pacific island during World War ll, the plot centres on an American nurse who falls in love with a French plantation owner but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. A secondary romance between a U.S. Marine lieutenant and a young Tonkinese woman explores his fears of the social consequences should he marry his Asian sweetheart.
Those familiar with SOUTH PACIFIC will know that issues of racism, colonialism and violent bigotry are candidly explored throughout the musical, making it somewhat of a challenging production to produce for modern audiences. Yet Daniel Evans’ vibrant production successfully teases out the colossal relevance of the piece while also confronting its shortcomings, emphasising the anti-racist message of the 1949 Broadway hit.
Peter McKintosh’s revolving set design, together with Gillian Tan’s video, creates both urgency and tenderness as the effects of war consume the island. An impressive opening sequence in which military soldiers abruptly invade a solo dance by a local Polynesian girl is just one example of how Evans successfully juxtaposes the lushness of the piece with an underlying threat of violence.
As pretty and naive Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, Gina Beck wonderfully demonstrates her character’s growth and delivers some thrillingly musical numbers. Her natural chemistry with Julian Ovenden, who is note-perfect as Emile de Becque, is captivating to watch, as is Ovenden’s performance of SOME ENCHANTED EVENING and THIS NEARLY WAS MINE.
As Liat, Sera Maehara has few words but brings her character to life through gestures and dance, thanks to Ann Yee’s delicate choreography. Joanna Ampil, her mother, brings a strong and assertive twist to Bloody Mary, her reimagined performance of HAPPY TALK standing out as a highlight as she pleas for the two lovers to reach across a racial divide.
Rob Houchen as lieutenant Cable deserves mention for his beautifully natural performance in the anti-racist number YOU’VE GOT TO BE CAREFULLY TAUGHT, as does Douggie McMeekin, who provides much comic relief as Luther Billis.
The disjointed pace between Act I and Act II results in the show taking a while to hit its stride, and the ending comes a little quickly, but this is a minor criticism in an otherwise joyous production.
Cat Beveridge’s orchestral rearrangement of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s captivating score, including songs like I’M GONNA WASH THAT MAN RIGHT OUTA MY HAIR, NOTHING LIKE A DAME and BALI HA’I, is worth the ticket price alone.
SOUTH PACIFIC runs at the Opera House, Manchester, until 23 July 2022.
Donna is the Founder and Editor of Frankly, My Dear UK. By day, she works as a digital marketing specialist, by night she reviews film, theatre and music for a wide range of publications including WhatsonStage and The Reviews Hub. Loves Formula 1, prosecco and life.