South Pacific, review: succumb to the siren call from this island paradise of a musical

·2-min read
Julian Ovenden (as Emile) and Gina Bec (asNellie) in South Pacific, at Sadler's Wells - Johan Persson
Julian Ovenden (as Emile) and Gina Bec (asNellie) in South Pacific, at Sadler's Wells - Johan Persson

To the directors tying themselves in knots over how to make classic work palatable for a modern audience: take a cue from Daniel Evans. Yes, the notorious racial politics in South Pacific gave Evans pause when he mounted his Chichester production last summer, but that became an opportunity for creative problem-solving. As Sadler’s Wells audiences can now appreciate, with a few judicious tweaks he draws out both the radical intent of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 musical and its lush, passionate beauty.

Based on James A Michener’s Pulitzer-winning book, the show’s portrait of US soldiers idling on a Pacific island until they can strike back against the Japanese was already remarkably authentic, and close to the bone, for a post-war yarn. So too was its anti-racism stance. The controversial number You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught is still a scorching invective.

Does the piece excuse nurse Nellie Forbush when she harshly rejects French planter Emile, on discovering he fathered two children with a dark-skinned Polynesian woman? I don’t think so. Evans lets that ghastly moment – Nellie’s visceral cry of “Coloured?” – hang in the air. It’s such a well-plotted twist: taking the “hick” who we’ve come to love for her small-town innocence and bubbly candour, and souring those very qualities.

In a sublimely well-sung and sumptuously orchestrated production, Gina Beck channels Nellie’s gumption, then slips into dreamy lyricism as she loses her heart to Emile. You can understand why: Julian Ovenden’s powerful tenor voice ripples with emotion through a swoon-worthy Some Enchanted Evening. And there’s surely no more spine-tingling pairing of singer and song than his This Nearly Was Mine – agony warring with ecstasy. Rob Houchen also impresses as Lieutenant Cable, torn between military duty and his intense romance with Liat on Bali Ha’i.

The magnificent contemporary dancer Sera Maehara and choreographer Ann Yee give that exoticised native girl a voice through movement: Liat opens the show, joyfully owning her surroundings until the army invades. She and Cable find a mutual language in dance, and it poignantly underlines a bleak rendition of Happy Talk from Joanna Ampil’s richly complex Bloody Mary.

Sera Maehara as Liat in South Pacific, at Sadler's Wells - Johan Persson
Sera Maehara as Liat in South Pacific, at Sadler's Wells - Johan Persson

A buoyant ensemble (wittily costumed by Peter McKintosh) has riotous fun with There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame and a towel-whipping I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair, while a cleverly used revolve zips us through scene changes. The climactic sacrifice also feels nobly earned. Succumb to the siren call from this shimmering island paradise of a musical.

Until 28 Aug. Tickets: 020 7863 8000;

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