Wednesday, 14 July 2021

REVIEW: South Pacific at the Chichester Festival Theatre

The one thing I have missed most during Lockdown is full-scale Musical Theatre with a large cast, strong band and wonderful tunes and the Chichester Festival Theatre opens its new season with the 1949 Rogers and Hammerstein South Pacific which was delayed from last year. The delay has given this classic musical a very modern and telling context not just with the Black Lives Matter campaign but also just days before the racist abuse of three England footballers.

Lyrist Hammerstein campaigned throughout his life for racial tolerance and equality and puts his political position at the heart of this Second World War story set on an island in the South Pacific. Every storyline has this theme from the overarching US Navy versus the Japanese, through the role of women in the story, the Western attitudes compared to the local islanders and the love stories that develop. Nurse Nellie Forbush (played until 25th August by Gina Beck before she is replaced by Alex Young) falls for Emile de Becque (Julian Ovenden) but rejects his marriage proposal when she discovers, not that he has killed a bully back in France but has two children by his dead Polynesian wife. Young Lieutenant Cable (Rob Houchen) falls for a local girl Liat (Sera Maehara) but he rejects marriage too, for fear of how his folks back home would react.

Cable’s heartfelt song in Act 2 in which he tellingly and regretfully sings, “you've got to be taught to hate and fear, You’ve got to be taught from year to year, It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear, You’ve got to be carefully taught” sums up that racial intolerance is taught by society and not instinctive. It is a powerful message and emphasises that for some it takes a long time to change attitudes.

Yet this powerful message is wrapped up in one of the best musical scores ever written with wonderful romantic tunes and full-blown rumbustious chorus numbers that provide lively fun show highlights. Can there be more romantic songs than “Some Enchanted Evening”,” I’m in love with a wonderful guy” and “Younger than springtime” sung by Nellie, Emile, and Cable respectively? These contrast wonderfully with the brilliant “There is nothing like a dame” with the male ensemble, the delightful “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair” with the female chorus and then the ridiculous comedy of “Honey Bun”. On top of that, we have the moving, spellbinding and haunting “Bali Ha’i” and the more dreamy upbeat “Happy Talk” sung by the local hustler Bloody Mary (Joanna Ampil). All of these are wonderfully delivered in this production by a cast in fine voice with clear strong vocals and a memorable orchestration under the direction of Cat Beveridge which definitely leaves you humming the tunes all the way home.

The multiple locations and the Theatre’s thrust stage with audience on three sides create its own challenges for the production which are largely very successfully solved by Peter Mackintosh’s fluid settings using a full stage revolve and several large stage trucks. Occasionally sightlines are hindered by the Plantation veranda set at an angle on the stage or overuse of the revolve but generally, they enable slick quick scene changes that keep the production moving forward. The lighting by Howard Harrison is exquisite with some beautiful lighting for the opening prologue and the love scene between Cable and Liat and a real sense of the tropical conditions throughout. Daniel Evans direction and Ann Yee’s choreography bring it all together in a joyous celebration of musical theatre.

There are so many strong performances throughout the cast from the charming young children, on press night, Ellie Chung, and Archer Brandon with another delightful tune “Dites- Moi”, the poignant balletic movement of Sera Maehara as Liat, the joyous energy of Joanna Ampil as Mary and Kier Charles as Luther to the youthful heroism of Rob Houchen as Cable. But the lasting memory is of the touching emotional harmony of Beck and an operatic Ovenden in their songs which hold the audience in raptures and generates waves of applause. If you can’t get down to Chichester to see this wonderful musical you can see it streamed on 4th, 9th,14th, 18th, 21st, 26th, 31st August and 3rd September and I urge you to tune in.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★
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