Julian Ovenden (Emile) and Gina Beck (Nellie) & in CFT’s South Pacific. Photo: Johan Persson
For the woke generation, Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1949 musical, South Pacific, might be somewhat problematic. With its 'Bali Ha'i' Orientalism and its heteronormative objectification of 'dames', it might not sit so easily anymore. Yet to dismiss this classic love story of American Seebees stationed on a Polynesian island during WWII is to fail to recognise two crucial facts. Firstly, in its day, South Pacific was controversially ahead of its time in addressing racial prejudice. Secondly, it contains some of the best loved songs of any musical, many of which can be culturally repositioned. Today it's not just women who might want to wash that man right out of their hair.
Gina Beck (Nellie) and cast in CFT’s South Pacific. Photo: Johan Persson
When it comes to The Chichester Festival Theatre Production, currently at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, there's another reason to enjoy this award winning musical. Namely a scintillating Gina Beck, who sets the stage alight every time she graces it, her singing divine, her performance riveting. As the down to earth, hometown girl, Ensign Nellie Forbush, Beck blends hoedown charm with a big heart and an even bigger smile. Full of the charm of Betty Hutton, with the detailed acting of Carey Mulligan, and touch of Mitzi Gaynor, with a passing resemblance to all three, Beck makes it impossible not to fall in love with Nellie Forbush from Little Rock, Arkansas.
Gina Beck (Nellie) in CFT’s South Pacific. Photo: Johan Persson
Except to do so would be futile. Nellie's already in love with Julian Ovenden's French, suave, sophisticated plantation owner, Emile de Becque. The kind of guy you don't bring home to your mother for fear of her trying to steal him. Yet meeting his two Polynesian children from a previous wife sees the course of true love turn bumpy for Nellie. A problem echoed in the parallel tale of Rob Houchen's Lieutenant Cable. Wild for local girl, Liat, daughter of Joanna Ampil's Bloody Mary, he'd dearly love to marry her. But, come on, she's not white. How would that look back in segregated America? And all the while there's a war going on, and all that war brings with it.
Joanna Ampil (Bloody Mary), Sera Maehara (Liat), and Rob Houchen (Lt. Cable) in CFT’s South Pacific. Photo: Johan Persson
Based on James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, book by Rodgers and Joshua Logan balances serious themes with earthy playfulness. Which director Daniel Evan's consciously underscores. A terrific rendition of You've Got To Be Carefully Taught by Ovenden and Houchen, set against an American flag, leaves no doubt where the problem of racism lies. A superb, opening dance by Sera Maehara's Liat connects past events with current times by way of contemporary choreography by Ann Yee. A bittersweet final image reminds you it's not always happy ever after for everyone. There's privileged and then there's the not so lucky, reflected in Peter McKintosh's set and costumes. If you thought South Pacific had little to say culturally, think again. As for musically, it's as fresh as ever
Joanna Ampil (Bloody Mary) and cast in CFT’s South Pacific. Photo: Johan Persson
Yet not everything has aged as well and not everything lands. The camp, cross dressing Honey Bun might have looked hilarious in the 50s, but it looks old hat today, despite an invested performance by Douggie McMeekin as Luther. Vocally there are issues including acoustics, projection, diction, weak singing in the lower registers and, in some cases, a battle between singing in accent and a natural voice. When it comes to group scenes, the boys have it in terms of energy, the girls looking like backing dancers. Most notably though, is the differences between the show and the 1958 much loved movie version that jars. With the movie being narratively tighter, some moments on stage feel hurried or out of sequence, like the evacuation scene.
Gina Beck (Nellie) & Julian Ovenden (Emile) in CFT’s South Pacific. Photo: Johan Persson
But these bumps in the road don't overly detract. A road beautifully lit by Howard Harrison. Just one of many reasons to see South Pacific. Classic yet modern, speaking to the past yet speaking to now, featuring some all time favourite songs, as well as a superlative Gina Beck, South Pacific makes for some enchanted evening. Oh come on, it was begging to be said. And more importantly, it's true.
The Chichester Festival Theatre Production of South Pacific, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, presented by Jamie Wilson, Jonathan Church Theatre Productions and Gavin Kalin, runs at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until September 17.
For more information visit Bord Gáis Energy Theatre