Tuesday 1st November 2022 at Leeds Grand Theatre
In a time of so many exciting adaptations and daring modernisations of classics, this production of South Pacific from director Daniel Evans is a shining example of how the “golden oldies” can maintain their appeal without very much tinkering at all.
Set on a South Pacific island circa WW2 and following a pair of smitten lovers, a second pair of lovers (just as smitten) and lively clusters of military personnel looking for fun during wartime, this musical wears its nostalgic heart on its sleeve. Adapted from the James A Michener novel, the 1949 book by Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan stretches out a simple narrative of wartime love and loss very well indeed.
Showing exactly what can be done with a mega hit Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Gina Beck, as Nellie Forbush, is a delightfully bouncy leading lady with impressive lung power. Yet for all her buoyancy, Forbush is a problematic character whose blind prejudices very nearly provide her downfall – it’s a difficult line to tread for 2022 audiences I think but Beck certainly takes the challenge in her stride.
Forbush’s smitten counterpart is Emile de Becque and Julian Ovenden brings gravitas and the distinct energy of a brooding lover with a dark past to the role – like Nellie, we easily gravitate towards his confident nature and we are totally taken in by his heartfelt crooning. Together, Beck and Obenden are every bit the instantly infatuated lovers so popular in classic musicals – and their vocal prowess is beautifully matched.
Speaking of vocal prowess, Rob Houchen’s Joseph Cable – another lovelorn youngster – offers some of the most arrestingly powerful vocals to be found in this show and deserves special mention. Comic relief belongs almost entirely to the very endearingly mischievous Douggie McMeekin as Luther Billis but also to Joanna Ampil who brings both fiery comedy and a mother’s palpable angst to the role of Bloody Mary.
The music? Well, Richard Rodger’s music soars and forces toes to tap along while Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics beautifully underscore both the wit and heartbreak within the narrative. Highlights include “A Cockeyed Optimist”, “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame” (which I still haven’t managed to stop humming at hourly intervals) and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy”, but the show is packed with recognisable and memorable ditties, including the ever popular “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Happy Talk”.
Having never seen this show before (I know, I know), I was surprised by the incredible resonance of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” which could have been written any day of any recent week – the way this musical explores attitudes towards race and difference in a time of renowned intolerance makes for interesting viewing in 2022. Yes, this is at heart a classic tale of the path to true love not running smoothly, but it also has a fair bit to say about the ways in which different cultures come together – and stands tall as it highlights the foolishness of the white man – and woman, as the case may be.
Peter McKintosh’s set and costume designs belong to lazy Sunday afternoon film reels of old – and set design makes fantastic use of a revolve. Ann Yee’s vibrant choreography gives the show much of its charm and energy but also offers some more delicate displays through Sera Maehara’s beautiful sequences illustrating the longing and heartbreak of Liat. The production offers up a large, talented ensemble which is forever in motion, whether fleetingly appearing to shift scenes or taking centre stage in perfect synchronised choreography – it’s always a treat to see a large cast move as one so seamlessly and this ensemble is wonderful to watch.
Whether you’re new to it or it’s a favourite from childhood, this production is worth a trip for its easy escapism and affectionate nostalgia.
South Pacific plays Leeds Grand Theatre until November 5th 2022 – you can find more information and tickets here.
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