Samantha Womack “a revelation” in slick ‘South Pacific’ revival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rodgers and Hammerstein, South Pacific:  (Lincoln Center Theater Production)  Barbican Theatre, London, 25.8.2011  (JPr)

Samantha Womack (Nellie Forbush) with Nurses - Picdture credit Simon Annand

The legacy of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s contribution to the golden age of Broadway musicals in the 1940s and 50s is that it casts a mirror darkly at the times in which they worked; Carousel is perhaps their darkest and deals with domestic abuse and South Pacific (like Showboat, Richard Rodgers’ 1927 collaboration with Jerome Kern) tackles racism. Often the argument is that these issues are not met head on – but how could they if they wanted their musical to reach the Broadway stage in the middle of the twentieth century? Of course they have made these works ripe for revisionism and deconstruction but sometimes – as in Bartlett Sher’s very successful Lincoln Centre revival that has now reached the Barbican Theatre – playing things fairly straight can mostly work too. It remains a curiosity that until this staging, South Pacific had not been seen on Broadway since the original in 1949.

I have never seen a fully-staged South Pacific performance before but know most of the songs for various reasons; especially from the 1986 recording with Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras and ‘There Is Nothing Like A Dame’ as performed in the 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show! Songs that are now regarded as ‘standards’ pepper a flimsy plot derived from James A Michener’s ‘Tales of the South Pacific’  which he based on his own service in World War II – its opening words form the front cloth that we see. The musical itself shows Americans at their bravest best but also their xenophobic worst and Bartlett Sher might want us to ponder how much anything might have really improved  for his nation from this point of view, despite its African-American President.

There was a collective sigh of recognition from a packed theatre as soon as the – admittedly rather thin sounding orchestra – launched into the overture packed with familiar themes. (I could have done with a lusher sound to the musical accompaniment but the small band of 24 played sterlingly throughout for musical director Jae Alexander). As is often the case with similar musicals we are thrown immediately into the story, we hear one of the best songs within a few minutes and that is reprised over and over through the evening, the first half is often too long (as here again) and after the interval everything rushes towards the end with undue haste (once again as here). Meanwhile much – often thought-provoking – fun is had by all. My feeling, as the story unravelled, was that it all had been lovingly restored but the social commentary still lacked a cutting edge.

Basically we follow two love stories across two Pacific islands, where American sailors are stationed. These are between people of different cultures and through these Rodgers and Hammerstein appeal for racial tolerance. Love blossoms without much preamble for Ensign Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse from Little Rock, but her burgeoning romance with Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner, hits the rocks – not for admitting he is a murderer but for something apparently far worse – because he has had two children with a Polynesian woman. Mary Martin created this part singing opposite the opera star Ezio Pinza, and it was her ‘cock-eyed optimism’ that became an anthem for post-war America.

The US Navy needs a secret mission to secure information about Japanese troop movement and there are other leading characters such as the islander Bloody Mary and the, equally entrepreneurial, Luther Billis – who was clearly the prototype of the wily Sergeant Bilko – and his gang of fellow ‘Seabees’. In the second – but much darker – ‘love story’, the calculating Bloody Mary ‘pimps out’ her daughter, Liat (a severely underwritten role), to a marine, Lieutenant Joseph Cable, who went to Princeton and therefore must come from a wealthy family.

As Nellie Forbush, the ‘little hick’, Samantha Womack will be a revelation to those who might only know her from BBC’s EastEnders. She is simply a true star in the making, who commands the stage throughout the evening. Usually the lead in a musical might do one of the three essentials – singing, dancing or acting – better than the others but Womack seems a real all-rounder. She delights us with her high-spirits in ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’, ‘A Wonderful Guy’, and ‘Honey Bun’ while emboldening all she does with truth and real sincerity. Had she just a little less British coolness and more Broadway pizzazz she would have reminded me even more than she did of a young Shirley Maclaine: however this approach would have undercut Sher’s restrained staging.

Equally, as the amorous French planter fleeing a dark past, Brazilian opera singer Paulo Szot (who appeared in the New York in this revival) used a resonant bass-baritone and delivered his rapturous ‘Some Enchanted Evening,” and a heartbroken ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ not as show stopping blockbusters they can be (and the latter clearly was) but as more reflective ruminations of true love. Daniel Koek was suitably weary, moody and battle-hardened as Lt. Joe Cable and eloquently crooned ‘Younger Than Springtime’ to Elizabeth Chong’s cypher of a Polynesian girl, Liat. More potent was when his character, though still afflicted with Malaria, delivers a big ‘message’ number ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’ about becoming a racial bigot is learned behaviour and not a natural phenomenon. Sher has subliminally underscored this theme of racism by having the few supposed African-American sailors in the company kept apart from the others.

Crowd pleasers like ‘There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame’ with the chorus of Seabees led by Alex Ferns as a likeable and exuberant Luther Billis (with an accent that channelled his inner Peter Falk) seems to arise without artifice from their daily routine. When the Hawaiian actress Loretta Ables Sayre (who also appeared in New York), sings the very familiar ‘Bali Ha’i’ and ‘Happy Talk’ they are unlike you have heard them before because they are rendered with a greater emphasis on their inherent seductive power.

Sadly Michael Yeargan’s set is a little two-dimensional but it might have been constrained by the need for it to go on tour like this. The often-seen beachscape is rather too ‘picture postcard’ in its artificiality, however slatted screens effectively define the interior settings when necessary and, mostly with the use of some appropriate lighting changes by Donald Holder, the best attempt is made to create the appropriate atmosphere for the various scenes.

There was some wonderful British talent on stage in addition to Ms Womack and all these supporting performances, including those of the ensemble, are perfectly integrated – and in many cases, individualised – within a slick and seamless entertainment that has a feel-good ending but still has made you think about the world as it was … and maybe still is. Catch it while you can.

Jim Pritchard

South Pacific is at the Barbican until 1st October and then is on tour – for further details please see