REVIEW: South Pacific at MK

WITH its storyline woven around America’s military involvement in the Far East during the Second World War, the rejuvinated South Pacific musical opened to a packed Milton Keynes Theatre audience on Wednesday, writes Alan Wooding.

Friday, 14th October 2011, 8:44 am

And while it’s not the first time that the 1949 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein classic has gone on tour in Britain, this latest production is by the polished US-based Lincoln Center Theater company.

The revamped show picked up no fewer than seven Tony Awards back in 2008 when it opened on Broadway and, having crossed ‘The Pond’, the same production ran for seven weeks playing to packed houses at the Barbican before setting out on its nationwide tour which commenced in Milton Keynes.

The show features some of the best-known melodies and lyrics ever written for the musical theatre, many among the sell-out opening night’s audience (me included!) still fondly remembering the 1958 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific which went on to wow audiences across the globe.

The latest version is an update of the 1949 musical stage play which won ten Tony’s, while South Pacific is actually based on James Michener’s Pulitzer 1947 prizewinning book, Tales of the South Pacific.

With a cast of around 30 members, the show tells the story of Nellie Forbush, a racially blinkered American nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas who falls for Emile de Becque, a middle aged French plantation owner who lives high on a hill on one of the Solomon Islands.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment on the opening night was the fact that Samantha Womack was unfortunately unavailable so Ensign Nellie Forbush was played instead by her understudy Carly Anderson, herself the winner of an Andrew Lloyd Webber scholarship prize.

Widower de Becque (played by Jason Howard) has two Polynesian children (Ngana and Jerome) who open the show on the terrace of the family home before Howard’s rich baritone voice captures the audience with the melodic ‘Some Enchanted Evening’.

Nellie’s own opening number ‘Cockeyed Optimist’ precedes that, while switching to another part of the island, the cast of sexually frustated Seabees (US sailors) led by Luther Billis (Alex Ferns) break into ‘There Is Nothing Like A Dame’ and that’s followed by the enchanting Bali Ha’i sung by Bloody Mary.

Mary is played by Loretta Ables Sayre, the only original cast member having been with the show since its Broadway days in 2008. A real Tonkinese peddling chancer, she is always looking to make a fast buck. Mary is happy selling shrunken heads or grass skirts to the US military but is quickly moved on with the arrival on the beach of Captain Brackett (Nigel Williams) and US Commander Harbison (Dominic Taylor).

However it’s the arrival of Marine Lieutenant Joe Cable (Daniel Loek) by submarine that the storyline unfolds. He is sent to set up a lookout post for Japanese shipping movements prior to the horrors that were witnessed on Guadalcanal after which the Americans were finally able to turn the tables on the enemy.

Nellie and the other US nurses sings ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’ as she tries to forget Emile and that’s followed swiftly by ‘A Wonderful Guy’ while Lieutenant Cable is captivated by Bloody Mary’s beautiful daughter Liat (Elizabeth Chong) after he manages to sail across to the forbidden island of Bali Ha’i along with Billis, Stewpot (Cameron Jack) and The Professor (Luke Kempner) where they are seduced by the Polynesian beauties.

Cable instantly falls in love with Liat with Bloody Mary suggesting she wil work to keep them while Koek’s hypnotic ‘Younger Than Springtime’ perfectly suits his wonderful tenor voice.

The first act ends back with Nellie and Emile de Becque back on the plantation house terrace while the second opens seven days later on Thanksgiving Day with a comedy dance routine on a makeshift stage.

Following the toe-tapping ‘Happy Talk’ and ‘Honey Bun’, de Becque’s ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ was the real show-stopper. Having thought he’d lost Nellie’s affections, he finally agrees to help Lieutenant Cable by taking him to various vantage points on the nearby islands to keep a closer eye on Japanese movements and report back to headquarters.

However the young Lieutenant is to die from his injuries, Nellie accepts too that de Becque has perished while she finally brushes aside her racial feelings and accepts her lot by looking after Emile’s Polynesian children.

And it’s while they are sitting down to a meal on the terrace that Emile makes a triumphant return while the new ‘family’ sing ‘Dites-Moi’, a simple French ditti which opened the show around two hours and 40 minutes earlier.

For all its wonderful melodies, the show does show signs of ageing. Back in 1949 when black people were still regarded as an underclass in racist USA, the storyline was probably thought groundbreaking with its liberalism.

There’s plenty of sexual tension between the American troops, nurses and the natives Pacific islanders while for me the best reason for seeing the show was Jason Howard singing ‘This Nearly Was Mine’. The over-Americanised accents often made it difficult to clearly hear all the dialogue but the musical numbers were first class as was the set.

I always felt that there was a touch of Miss Saigon about it although South Pacific naturally came first. But by bringing an almost life-size US fighter plane, two makeshift shower towers from which two naked Navy Seabees comically emerge! there are plenty of other large props and it all makes for a great evening’s entertainment.

If you’re quick, then you can probably get into one of the two extra matinee performances scheduled for Milton Keynes before it closes on October 22. If not, then why make make the trip to see it at the New Theatre in Oxford between December 6 and 31.