THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Summer is here and Chichester is back with a bang. The Artistic Director there, Daniel Evans, is steeped in the vocabulary of musical theatre and as a performer himself he won two Oliviers. He's got an alchemy going on here where everything - cast, direction, choreography, design, orchestrations - has coalesced in a way no recent production of this show has. Evans, as director, has reinterpreted and refreshed South Pacific for our era, while at the same time totally respecting the source material, which is now 72 years old.
The plot revolves around an American nurse, Nellie (Gina Beck), stationed on a south Pacific island during World War II, who falls in love with a middle-aged expatriate French plantation owner Emile (Julian Ovenden), but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. A sub plot involves a parallel romance between a US marine, Lt. Cable (Rob Houchen), and a young Tonkinese woman, Liat (Sera Maehara), and his fears of the social backlash should he marry her. Her mother, Bloody Mary (Joanna Ampil), a formidable pedlar of everything on this naval base, pushes hard for the match to secure her daughter's future.
Evans totally gets that with classic Rodgers & Hammerstein you let the songs do the emotional heavy lifting and you don't overload it with concepts or need to make heavy weather of its central progressive message. For 1949 that message was way too hot to handle and Hammerstein was pressured, for example, to pull the number 'You've got to be carefully taught'. He resisted.
Here, Evans simply hands it to the golden voiced Houchen, and the stillness of his powerhouse rendition renders the need for any further elaboration unnecessary. Houchen's tenor voice is simply astonishing and his sober boyishness is perfect for Cable.
Serious themes may run deep here but Evans fills this staging with energy, wit, and joy. There isn't a dud song of course and it is all sublimely orchestrated by Nigel Lilley, who draws out the great stylistic variety in the score.
The part of Emile now fits Julian Ovenden like a glove. He's graduated to Dads and those locks of his are sprinkled with salt n pepper and here his experience and talent click into place like at no other. His Emile is funny and engaging, as opposed to the usual stick in the mud, and his vocals are as silky as any crooner. Yet, when called for, as in 'This Nearly Was Mine', he delivers that aria like a tenor would at the Met.
Gina Beck could be the reincarnation of Debbie Reynolds, perfectly blending girl-next-door winsomeness with sassy jazz vocals. The cross-dressing 'Honey Bun' number is a barnstormer for her, aided by Ann Yee's sparkling choreography and Peter McIntosh's witty 'make do' costumes. His designs too make full use of the revolve and give the piece a glorious dynamism.
The central problem of the piece has always been the part of Liat – coy and wordless, a Madame Butterfly trope. Yee has the inspired idea to explore that perhaps her language is physical and not vocal. She's therefore the first thing we see and her fateful encounter with Cable is transformed from an awkward exchange into an achingly romantic pas de deux, lit by lanterns. The lyricism resolves the tensions about the power imbalance.
The other great revelation is that Ampil refuses to present Bloody Mary as the usual joke caricature. She makes her feisty but also young and, crucially, sexy. The problem isn't with these characters per se but rather how they've been interpreted for us down the years and Evans and Yee have simply and shifted the lens a little and re-opened our eyes.