emile and Nellie

Julian Ovenden as Emile de Becque and Gina Beck as Ensign Nellie Forbush. Pictures: Johan Persson

South Pacific

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham


South Pacific is a musical way ahead of its time, 73 years on it is still relevant, still contemporary and in the hands of this new production, still brilliant entertainment.

The musical, based on James A. Michener's Pulitzer Prize–winning 1947 book Tales of the South Pacific, opened on Broadway in 1949, with WWII memories still vivid. It is set in the latter half of the war amid a group from the US Navy Construction Battalions, the SeaBees, based on a Polynesian island.

There a nurse, Ensign Nellie Forbush, played by Gina Beck, falls for a middle-aged French plantation owner Emile de Becque, played by Julian Ovenden.

The pair are magical, Beck’s Nellie from Little Rock, Arkansas, has the small town American charm of the innocent abroad, but with a voice that puts her in the big city league. It’s clear and powerful when it needs to be. She’s fun, everyone’s friend but with a failing that is the crux of the musical.

Ovenden’s Emile cuts a lonely, even sad figure, a man with a chequered past at one time noble at another heartbreaking, who has suddenly found the love he has longed for. Whether Ovenden’s French accent would pass muster with a Parisienne taxi driver I have no idea, but it sounded fine to me and, most important, it was consistent.

He has a wonderful tenor voice, rich and full, and managed the difficult feat of singing with that distinctive accent of a foreign operatic tenor, say a Domingo or Bocelli, singing in English.


Emile ponders what was nearly his

The pair are completely believable. If they are the main love interest then there is a secondary flutter of heartstrings with Lt Joseph Cable, sent to the island for a dangerous mission.

The US are on the back foot in the war against Japan and the mission is on the verge of being suicidal but could turn the war in the US’s favour. Rob Houchen’s Cable is Yale educated, a little shy, one suspects from a world that hardly stretches beyond country clubs and a comfortable home life. Not exactly a Rambo but mindful of his duty.

Conned by Luther Billis, the SeaBee fixer, to visit the island of Bali Ha'i, out of bounds to all but officers, he falls head over heels for Liat, the beautiful daughter of Bloody Mary. Houchen has a lovely light tenor and his solo You've Got to Be Carefully Taught is perhaps the most famous, or perhaps most infamous song of the show, but more of that later.

The show is packed with famous songs though, with the likes of Some Enchanted Evening; Younger Than Springtime; I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair; This Nearly Was Mine; There Is Nothing Like a Dame; Happy Talk; I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy and even Bali Ha'i all becoming standards with multiple covers.

Liat, meanwhile, played by Sera Maehara, hardly speaks but says all she needs to say through dance and what a dancer she is. In the opening sequence, with the overture accompanied by her dancing, her perfect balance while turning on one leg is breathtaking.

Bloody Mary and Billis are the light relief. Billis being sort of the Sgt Bilko of the operation, running every dodgy operation from his laundry to his beach club with a souvenir business on the side.

His appearance in a grass skirt in the unit's variety show brings a new meaning to the word glamour – and it isn’t a pretty one. Douggie McMeekin looks like he enjoys every minute in the role and takes the audience along with him for the ride.


Sera Maehara as Liat

Joanna Ampil gives us a bolshy, in yer face Bloody Mary, making grass skirts, and a buck - lots of them - where she can. She’d happily take the shirt off your back and then sell it back to you, but you suspect there is a soft centre in there somewhere. She zealously looks after her daughter whatever the cost and boy, can the lady sing.

Incidentally Mary is not Polynesian, she is Tonkinese, a native of Tonkin, the region of North Vietnam. It was little known by Americans in 1949 but it was to strain the US conscience for decades a handful of years later.

Ann Yee’s wonderful choreography gives some marvelous large scale ensemble pieces, the highlights being the iconic There is Nothing Like a Dame for the SeaBees and I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair for the nurses  

While Peter McKintosh’s stark set gives the musical a very modern and clean feel. It has the effect of a corrugated iron walled hangar, with doors that slide open to allow Billis’s effective laundry, beach club, even a stage for the concert to roll in and out.

The set uses a revolve which creates additional interest and allows a Noises Off approach to the camp concert where the stage is rotated to take us backstage and returning to the concert for Nellie and Billis in Honey Bun all in the same scene.

A faint video atop of the rear wall helps set the scene with impressions of palm tress and so on, not so much scenery as giving a hint of an idea, all very effective while Howard Harrison's lighting adds drama and mood - although travel spots had a few early first night new theatre stutters.

A mention too for the props, the office desks of the camp commanders, Capt Bracket (David Birrell) and Cmdr Harbinson (Stephen Jon Davis) looked authentic, as did the costumes right down to the nurses 1940’s bathing attire.

Director Daniel Evans also recognised that little can be more as Emile sings the emotive This Nearly Was Mine quite beautifully on an empty stage turning it into a showstopper.

The music is all helped by a wonderful 15 strong orchestra under musical director Jon Laird, which is huge by touring and even West End standards these days, and what a difference it makes to the richness, colour and depth of the sound. Worth a bow on its own.


Joanna Ampil as Bloody Mary with Rob Houchen's Lieutenant Robert Cable 

Evans has not shied away from the theme of the musical, bringing it front stage and in the spotlight. The whole purpose of the musical as far as Rodgers and Hammerstein were concerned, was to highlight racial prejudice.

There are no major changes to the script just a change in emphasis. Nellie is taken aback not so much that Emile has two children but by the fact they are mixed race and as for his late wife . . . he had married a . . . brown . . . woman, something beyond her Arkansas comprehension. Somehow the thought of that meant he was tainted and she needed to wash him out of her hair, at least until love finally won the argument.

The same problem was surrounding Lt Cable and his love for the Tonkinese Liat which gives us his heartfelt You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught. It is is still one of the most powerful and understated antiracism songs every written. It is proceeded by Cable’s sad comment that racism is "not born in you! It happens after you’re born . . .”.

Remember this was in 1949 in a USA with widespread segregated buses, restaurants, schools and colleges, where voting by African Americans was made near impossible in much of the South, while in 1949 three people, all black, had been lynched, bringing the figure to 31 black lynchings for the decade.

There were legal challenges to the musical, largely in the Southern States. Georgia tried to ban it. It was deemed communist, unAmerican , inspired by Moscow and even in the more liberal New York and New England, Rodgers and Hammerstein were advised to tone it down and remove the most controversial song. They refused stating that that was what the musical was all about, that was why they had written it.

A brave decision but it paid off. It ran for 1,925 performances, won ten Tony awards, the only musical production to win awards in all four acting categories, and the cast recording was the top selling album of the 1940s.

This Chichester Festival Theatre production has stuck to the message and you can feel the audience discomfort as Nellie’s quietly controlled and understated disgust is revealed – they were not expecting that. The point is not laboured, there is no preaching, just a seed sown, something to think about as your mind happily plays the songs again on your way home.

South Pacific is perhaps an underrated Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, despite its string of standard songs but as we said at the start, seventy three years on it is still relevant and, in a production like this, it is still magnificent entertainment. To 01-10-22

Roger Clarke


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