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Review Round-up: South Pacific Crosses the Atlantic

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Bartler Sher's Tony Award-winning revival of of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic 1949 musical South Pacific opened to critics last night (23 August 2011, previews from 15 August) at London's Barbican Centre.

The cast includes former Eastenders stars Samantha Womack (who braved a broken toe on opening night) and Alex Ferns, as well as original cast members from the Broadway production, Brazilian operatic baritone Paulo Szot and Loretta Ables Sayre.

The iconic show tells the love story between French Plantation Owner Emile de Becque and nurse Nellie Forbush, including famous Rodgers & Hammerstein hits such as "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" and "Some Enchanted Evening".

It runs at the Barbican until 1 October 2011, before commencing a national tour, visiting venues including Manchester's Palace Theatre, Liverpool's Empire and Milton Keynes Theatre.

Michael Coveney

"… 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 as a low-key Nellie Forbush … Womack goes through the motions and is perfectly okay, but she doesn’t fizz or sparkle. … she moved around easily enough and sang fairly well. She just seemed a bit dumb upstairs when it came to registering her emotions… 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… … 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."

Charles Spencer

“…Though not quite as lavish as the original Lincoln Centre production, this touring version with beautiful South Sea island designs and a fine 25-piece pit orchestra making the most of the brilliant score, still proves a moving and uplifting experience. The performances are vivid and fresh, and the story of the American navy trying to find a breakthrough against the Japanese in the Pacific during the Second World War combines romance, comedy and suspense. Paulo Szot, who starred in the Broadway production, brings charm, authority and a sense of Gallic melancholy to the plantation owner Emile de Becque, lending the musical an almost tragic grandeur at times. He sings with rich power in such great numbers as 'Some Enchanted Evening', though theatre-goers should note that he is alternating the role with the Welsh opera singer Jason Howard. Loretta Ables Sayre, who also starred in New York, brings a mixture of humour and chilling cupidity to the role of Bloody Mary, the islander who tries to make a profit out of warfare. She often makes you laugh out loud, but she makes you wince , too. Samantha Womack, proves a delightfully engaging Nellie, who movingly learns the error of her racial prejudice, while Alex Ferns offers terrific comic value as Seabee Luther Billis, particularly in his grass-skirted drag number, 'Honey Bun'. This is a production of almost continuous pleasure, a classic of American musical theatre revived with the love and respect it richly deserves.”

Michael Billington

"… It's a perfectly decent revival of a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic but with little of the pizzazz we expect to find in musicals at Chichester or Regent's Park... …The best reason for seeing this revival is to catch the Brazilian-born baritone Paulo Szot as Emile (though he'll be replaced by Jason Howard from 29 August to 21 September). He brings to the role a commanding presence, a sense of solitude and a burnished tone that almost stops the show in 'This Nearly Was Mine'. But while Samantha Womack sings well as Nellie, she is quintessentially English to be wholly convincing as a naive nurse from Little Rock: it's a conscientious but cautious performance typified by the fact that, when she sings 'I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair', Womack dabs a bit of shampoo on her golden locks without ever getting them really wet. In contrast Loretta Ables Sayre gives a full-blooded performance as the Tonkinese pedlar, Bloody Mary, that brings out the character's sinister predatoriness. There is good work from Daniel Koek as a traumatised lieutenant, and from Alex Ferns as the ebullient Luther Billis. The English chorus boys are also surprisingly convincing as raunchy American seabees, and Bartlett Sher's production, with its vistas of the Pacific, is handsome to look at. It makes for a pleasant evening, but one that suggests New York has little to teach us about resurrecting the Broadway past."

Paul Taylor

“… It's handsomely, if sparingly, designed and alluringly lit. Using the sumptuous original orchestrations, a 25-piece band does ravishing justice to the indestructible score… But for all the talk of how the production draws out the darkness of the racial issues by reincorporating discarded material, this comes across as a highly accomplished, but faintly bland and traditional treatment. ...That's not a charge you level against the superb Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary, the island's souvenir-seller. She plays her as a formidably fierce and calculating operator who would make Mother Courage quail and whose rendition of 'Bali H'ai' sound like a creepily systematic sales pitch in the pimping of her 17-year-old daughter. Brazilian opera singer Paulo Szot brings his lovely burnished baritone and a rumpled romantic presence to the role of Emil de Becque, the lonely French planter whose wooing of young nurse Nellie Forbush is derailed when she recoils from the fact he has mixed-race children. Former EastEnders star Samantha Womack makes an engagingly spirited and touching fist of this cock-eyed optimist's emotional journey from unexamined Little Rock bigotry to rueful self-awareness. There's a delightful tongue-in-cheek impishness and air of sassy send-up to her performance of 'I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair' that suggest a latent independence of mind in this Nellie. Unfortunately, there's next to no sexual chemistry between the two leading performers. That's symptomatic of a production that seems to have lost something in crossing the Atlantic and is deficient in that spark that turns respect into rapture.”


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