National treasures all, of course, as is, to a far lesser extent, Samantha Womack (formerly pin-up girl Samantha Janus), who gives a game but tame performance as Nellie Forbush. But she may have been treading carefully for a reason.
Before the overture, director Bartlett Sher (no relation of Tony, and as luxuriantly coiffed as Tom Conti in his prime) appeared on stage to say that, just one hour earlier, Miss Womack had been diagnosed with -- a broken toe.
New one on me, squire. Head cold or inflamed larynx, yes, but broken toe? Anyway, Sher was thrilled we were all here because he wanted to enlist our support, which was the second very odd thing of him to say. An audience is seated at a musical to enjoy itself, not to come out for anyone.
Though I suppose he might have been addressing the investors and producers, who are legion on this show, ranging from Howard Panter, Bill Kenwright and Nick Newton (Bush Theatre founder) of Promenade Productions, right through to transatlantic National Theatre first-dibs merchant Bob Boyett and legendary Broadway war horse Roger Berlind.
I sat next to Berlind and his charming wife, who was intrigued to find herself surrounded by critics, something that doesn't happen to a woman of her dignity and status very often. She was wearing one of the most beautiful diamond rings I've ever seen, so I tucked in my shirt and went into best behaviour mode, despite the joshing of Baz Bamigboye in front of me.
Former New York Times critic Frank Rich was also in the house, though Mrs Berlind told me he was in London on unrelated business, making some short films for an independent company.
As the evening developed, it became increasingly mysterious to ponder how Sher's Lincoln Center production ever won seven Tony awards. Trevor Nunn's National Theatre production ten years ago was far superior, and much more exciting, and I even have fond memories of a long-ago Prince of Wales Theatre revival by Roger Redfarn starring the ebullient, zany Gemma Craven at her peak, and a stripped down Drill Hall version by Phil Willmott with Peter Polycarpou as the French plantation owner.
The show's Thanksgiving Follies, which turn into an American version of Peter Nichols's Privates on Parade, with Luther Billis dragging up in a grass skirt as Nellie's "hundred and one pounds of honey-bun fun" were much more exhilarating on both those occasions. Here, the needle got stuck in the over-reverent groove, vulgarity losing out to coyness, very unusual in a Broadway show of any kind.
Nor is there much chemistry between Womack and the allegedly much older Emile de Becque of operatic baritone Paulo Szot. "Some Enchanted Evbening" is the score's best song, and it's a very close run thing for second place between "Younger than Springtime" and "This Nearly Was Mine," though Szot makes a tremendously persuasive case for the latter.
It's very hard, these days, to see how Nellie from Little Rock would be so upset about the fact that Emile has two "coloured" children by a former marriage to a Polynesian native. The kids are so cute, and she is so pleasant.
But this is where the business of theatre comes in. South Pacific, like Oklahoma! and, especially, Carousel, is not so much a musical as a drama with music, and a very great deal is demanded of the performers in making it live in a current context.
And it's here that Sher's production, for all its technical excellence in the sound and lighting departments, falls down, in not being specific enough in its theatrical point-making.
This applies to the main plot as well as to the surrounding war-time operation and the sudden emotional flare-up between Lieutenant Cable and the native girl, Liat.
Our theatre is not always in the best position to instruct Broadway on how to produce its own golden age musicals, but I do think that Nicholas Hytner and Trevor Nunn did far better by Rodgers and Hammerstein in their respective revivals of Carousel and Oklahoma!, not to mention South Pacific itself.
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