Slow-paced but­thescore is­the­draw

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Entertainment -

Bar­bican

THIS AWARD-LADEN New York pro­duc­tion of Rodgers and Ha mmerst e i n ’ s 1949 clas­sic ar­rived in Lon­don with the news — an­nounced on stage by t he s h o w ’ s A m e r i - can di­rec­tor Bartlett Sher — that its new lead­ing lady, for­mer EastEnder Samantha Wo­mack, would soldier on de­spite a bro­ken toe. It was a brave de­ci­sion. There is stomp­ing to be done dur­ing I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair; and there are kicks and Pop­eye-style shanty steps re­quired for Honey Bun, the joke num­ber for which Wo­mack’s Nurse Nel­lie dresses as one of the US marines based on a Poly­ne­sian is­land dur­ing the war.

Wo­mack ne­go­ti­ates the moves with barely a hint of the pain she must have been go­ing through. If you were to look for rea­sons as to why the first act of South Pa­cific is so life-sap­pingly slow, the strapped Wo­mack toe would not be among them. You would in­stead have to look at Joshua Lo­gan and Hammerstein’s creaky book which is based on James A Mich­ener’s Pulitzer-win­ning novel Tales of the South Pa­cific.

It is a story we join two weeks af­ter Nurse Nel­lie, a small town girl from Lit­tle Rock, first met French plan­ta­tion owner Emile De Becque, played by the ten­der bari­tone Paulo Szot who on this ev­i­dence richly de­serves the award he won in New York. Yet rarely has a whirl­wind ro­mance felt so pro­tracted. By the end of the first act, just two things of note have hap­pened. It has emerged that the newly ar­rived Lieu­tenant Cable (Daniel Koek) is on a dan­ger­ous mis­sion to spy on the Ja­panese navy, a job for which he plans to en­list Emile’s help; and Nel­lie has done a run­ner af­ter dis­cov­er­ing that the French­man she loves has two chil­dren by a black woman who is now dead. It is the colour of her skin she ob­jects to.

Though not much hap­pens, it hap­pens to a bril­liant score. The mo­ment Emile and Nel­lie met is un­for­get­tably pre­served with Some En­chanted Evening; the frus­tra­tion of sex-starved sailors ex­plodes with There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame and the eerie call of the wild that is Bali Ha’i is sung with a siren’s lure by Loretta Ables Sayre’s, Bloody Mary.

But for a gen­er­a­tion who would have first heard Some En­chanted Evening not at the the­atre, but more likely hummed by their grand­mother, the songs feel at­tached to a moral­ity tale that man­ages to say the bleedin’ ob­vi­ous about racism while oddly ig­nor­ing some pretty ur­gent side is­sues.

Sure, it is great that Emile saw skin colour as no bar­rier to a past re­la­tion­ship. But it is not easy to em­pathise with him when Emile’s re­sponse to a girl who is re­volted by his colour blind­ness is to send her flow­ers.

And when, smit­ten by Bloody Mary’s del­i­cate daugh­ter, Lieu­tenant Cable rails against the racism that sep­a­rates them with a cry of “Why can’t I have her as my wife?”, I wanted to cry back, “Be­cause she looks about 12?”

Sher’s is un­doubt­edly savvy to this. With one look, the black Amer­i­can sailors on the is­land con­demn Nel­lie’s at­ti­tude. And when Bloody Mary of­fers her daugh­ter to Cable while singing Happy Talk, the mother’s pro­posal of marriage sounds more like an of­fer from a pimp. But be­ing savvy to the is­sues is not the same as re­solv­ing them.

Still, as you would ex­pect in a pro­duc­tion di­rected by the Metropoli­tan Opera’s Sher, the singing is beau­ti­ful — mes­meris­ingly so in the case of Szot. But that just adds to the sense that South Pa­cific is bet­ter off in con­cert form, such as the 2005 Carnegie Hall show that led to this re­vival.

PHOTO: SI­MON ANNAND

Samantha Wo­mack ( right) as Nurse Nel­lie in Bartlett Sher’s re­vival of South Pa­cific, now in Lon­don

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