This revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic 1949 musical South Pacific was a very big deal on Broadway three years ago: the first since the original, and a multiple Tony award winner. Some interested parties, such as, well, the Rodgers and Hammerstein organisation, say this is the best revival ever.
Hmm, well, not sure about that. Bartlett Sher’s Lincoln Center production is sharp and sassy, beautifully designed with lots of slatted blinds and oceanic views by Michael Yeargen, and comes with two of its Broadway stars, operatic baritone Paulo Szot as Emile, the French plantation owner, escaping his past, and Loretta Ables Sayre as a bulldog, bustling Bloody Mary, the native siren of Bali Ha’i, planning a future for her daughter with the handsome American lieutenant Cable.
But best ever? No way, I’m afraid, with Samantha Womack, best known as a barmaid in EastEnders, as a low-key Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse from Little Rock who wants to wash that man right out of her hair (with no water in the shower, for heaven’s sake). Womack goes through the motions and is perfectly okay, but she doesn’t fizz or sparkle.
We were told on opening night that she’d broken a toe, so maybe she was holding back. But she moved around easily enough and sang fairly well. She just seemed a bit dumb upstairs when it came to registering her emotions, let alone her ecstatic flights of being in love with a Wonderful Guy (the repetition just seemed repetitious) and the sudden switch she has to make in accepting Emile’s “coloured” children.
Nor does the American operation against the Japanese, or the sense of a dangerous theatre of war, strike home as strongly as it did in Trevor Nunn’s superb National Theatre production ten years ago (with a really sparkling Nellie, Lauren Kennedy).
Daniel Koek’s Cable is sweetly sung, and his docile, submissive Liat is nicely judged by Elizabeth Chong. There’s an ebullient Luther Billis, leading the Thanksgiving Follies in a grass skirt, from Alex Ferns. The band is efficiently supervised by Ted Sperling, the orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett sounding as ingenious and insinuating as ever.
And with great lighting by Donald Holder, there’s a splendid marching retreat in silhouette. But the timeless element of American imperialism muddling through in a series of local compromises – in a musical, of course, these are romantic and personal – is too unfocussed and understated.
But the score is imperishable, and much joy will be had when this show tours the nation and reawakens delight on “Some Enchanted Evening” and its bewitching dramatic composition in which dialogue, sentiment and music are held in perfect sway.