This is the much-lauded production transferred from the Barbican Theatre in London, with the star to prove it, ex-EastEnders baby kidnapper, Ronnie Mitchell herself, Samantha Womak. The Rogers and Hammerstein classic initially felt right at home on the Empire stage, despite a few unfortunate technical problems on press night.
The very likable Womack played Nellie Forbush, a nurse stationed out on a South Pacific island during World War II. The show opens not with a bang, but a whimper really, with a sober and serious scene that is supposed to demonstrate the burgeoning romance between her and French plantation owner Emile De Beque (Matthew Camelle). Dialogue-heavy and with a distinct lack of any convincing chemistry between these two leads, it meant things were flawed from the get-go.
Would Emile’s secret past tear the two of them apart? And what about the other couple who get together on the island, all-American Joe Cable (Daniel Koek) and island girl Liat (Elizabeth Chong), who doesn’t speak a word of English? Erm… There was just something so mechanical about this production, and seriously very little in the way of dramatic tension to be had. While the performances were of a very high standard and technically faultless, they generally came without warmth, any sense of personality, or hint of the passion that supposedly drives the characters.
The classic romantic numbers were belted out largely as characters stayed rooted to the spot, or staring at the floor — there was just no sense that these people really had anything they were really bursting to sing about. For a musical, that’s pretty depressing.
Although the famous Nothing Like A Dame is given a bit of a saucy makeover and former EastEnders bad boy Alex Ferns hammed it up as loveable rogue Luther Billis, the big numbers that arguably should have been filled with exciting, generous song and dance routines, just all seemed a bit too understated, both for the size of the venue and in terms of projection to the back of the theatre.
The production boasts a wonderful score and some truly lovely singing voices from the cast, Womack, Camelle and Koek especially. But Loretta Ables Sayre more or less stole the show as Bloody Mary, the only character with any real perceivable joie de vivre at all — and that’s only because she’s supposed to be a bit bonkers.
A highlight would be Thanksgiving show number Honey Bun, that saw Nellie take the part of a butch sailor while Billis became a coconut bra-wearing blonde bombshell to entertain the troops. In the second act, Trevor Ferns really got to make the most of his character.
Director Bartlett Sher possibly wanted to put a different slant on things; but the choice to perform Happy Talk against a dreary brown backdrop as our romantic hero Joe Cable repeatedly collapsed in a fit of malaria just seemed like a waste of a huge jolly number.
Perhaps this is unfair, and perhaps it’s a matter of timing as South Pacific suffered in the wake of a rapturously recieved press night for A Streetcar Named Desire at the Playhouse last night, a work that brimmed over with passion and complex emotions, and that could arguably leave anything else paling in comparison.
Saying that, South Pacific was probably far too long for such an essentially formulaic show — extra long in tonight’s case thanks to a technical fault that nearly deafened the audience and halted the show for ten minutes. Apart from this, so many things were perfect about this production, perhaps too perfect; it’s a shame that it was somehow missing the spark to set it off.
South Pacific is on at the Empire until Saturday March 3.
Picture by Simon Annand