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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
SOUTH PACIFIC
at venues across the U.K.

ALMOST ENCHANTED EVENING
By ALLEN ROBERTSON

  Samantha Womack with Nurses/ Ph: Simon Annand

It was a very good year. 1949 kicked off with Kiss Me, Kate, followed just seven weeks later by Death of a Salesman. Then, after another seven weeks, along came South Pacific. This triple-header of genuine genius crammed in between New Year’s Eve and Easter is a perfect illustration of why Broadway deserves its nickname of the Great White Way.

Both Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had already achieved huge success before they teamed up in a partnership that would become the greatest duo of them all: Oklahoma!CarouselThe King and IThe Sound of Music. However, nothing they created trumps South Pacific, for which they won the Pulitzer Prize and a whole clutch of Tonys – 10 in all.

Fast-forward to 2008 and the Lincoln Center revival directed with gusto by Bartlett Sher. It garnered an additional seven Tony Awards and ran for more than two years. Sher’s production has now arrived in London. It comes trailing such glory that it was virtually guaranteed not to fulfill all of its expectations.

Yes, of course, this is a landmark show with an almost embarrassing non-stop cornucopia of hit tunes. Yes, of course, Paulo Szot, recreating his Lincoln Center performance as French planter Emile De Becque, has a stupendous voice. But after these truisms, problems begin to surface. I didn’t see the Lincoln Center revival so I can’t balance it against this new touring version (after seven weeks in London it will be traveling around the United Kingdom through March 2012), but I left the theatre having expected more.

The World War II tales that make up the plot are set in a remote South Seas backwater. These characters may be a million miles from home, but both love and prejudice are standing there right next to them. Samantha Womack, a U.K. TV star, is cast as Nurse Nellie Forbush, the ingenuous hick who eventually has her blinkered eyes opened to the realities of the wider world. But she doesn’t capture the aw-shucks-little-girl-from-Little-Rock tone that is so necessary to convey her wide-eyed optimism. It doesn’t help that she seems to have modeled her accent on that other famous Arkansan, Bill Clinton.

More importantly, there is precious little sexual chemistry going on between Womack and Szot. The radical, even revolutionary moment when the two of them first fall in love as they simply stand staring at one another while Rodgers’ music surges to luscious emotional heights doesn’t manage to thrill.

In addition to Szot, the other cast member imported from Manhattan is Loretta Ables Sayre, who plays the rapacious native woman Bloody Mary – somebody clever dubbed her “Mother Courage in a grass skirt.” She has been doing the show for too long. Her songs certainly hit the spot but her accent has gone so adrift that it is often all but impossible to decipher her dialogue scenes.

I suppose most people would cite "Some Enchanted Evening" as the show’s iconic anthem, but it is really Mary’s crooning and seductive "Bali Ha’i" that provides the show’s spiritual core. And here is my biggest gripe about this production. Whether it is the director, the designer or restrictions on the budget, we are deprived of really experiencing the mysterious magical allure of Bali Ha’i. It doesn’t seduce us, it simply happens.

Daniel Koek plays Lt Joe Cable, the man whom Mary lures to Bali Ha’i in the hopes that he will bed and then wed her daughter Liat. He’s got a piercingly clear voice but isn’t much more of an actor than Womack. Alex Ferns as Luther Billis, the comic motor of the piece, doesn’t exhibit enough of the vigorous vulgarity that the script demands.

Even with these caveats, and thanks to the brilliance of Rodgers and Hammerstein, this turns out to be a treat – an almost enchanted evening. 

 


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