Bartlett Sher's production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's South Pacific enchanted the New York theatre scene when it premiered in 2008. Critics called it a revivalist revelation, striking at musical's dark heart and marking a rare, watershed moment when Broadway reinvented and resurrected itself. And yet it is difficult to see what is new here.
American sweetheart and navy nurse Nellie finds herself thousands of miles away from small-town Arkansas and desperately in love, in love, in love with a wonderful guy with a questionable past. With its the crisp naval outfits and the sea foam lapping in the soundscape, this is more a comforting exercise in nostalgia than the groundbreaking reimagining that some would paint it.
As "Cockeyed Optimist" Nellie, ex-Eastender Samantha Womack is radiant and warm, singing sweetly with a folksy, Midwestern accent. Although she hits all of the right notes in the right places, her performance often lacks the force needed to emphasise the character's vigour and set her apart in the ensemble numbers. The same could hardly be said for Brazilian born Paulo Szot, a world-class baritone who transforms every song in the libretto into a powerful and shattering anthem of love and heartache.
And yet, as the romantic leads of the piece, Womack and Szot have about as much chemistry as an extinct volcano. No matter how enchanted their lives are, no matter how tuneful their performances, the central relationship feels stilted and, as a consequence, this love story never really sets sail.
But, oh, bloody hell, Loretta Ables Sayre is enthralling as profiteer and pedlar Bloody Mary. Carrying herself with the exhausted wearies of a life spent working for survival, she moves around the stage like a malevolent, playful island spirit, lurking in the darkness, sinister yet infinitely endearing. Her performance of the soft, balladic "Bali Ha'i" is beautiful in its smooth restraint, full of the haunting mysticism and lingering promises of the Southern seas.
South Pacific has all of the ingredients necessary to be something quite delicious: the design is fluid and the orchestrations rich; the ensemble tight and the staging colourful. And yet, its flavour does not truly come through. The romance is a non-starter. When the cocktail is mixed, you have to wonder if it was worth the effort of squeezing the fruit.