Arriving on the back of a much lauded New York run, this Lincoln Center Theater Production of South Pacific washes up onto our shores laden with big expectations (and even bigger ticket prices). But it’s worth noting that only two of the original’s Tony-award winning cast are still in place – and one of those, Paulo Szot, for only part of the run – the resulting production never quite achieves must-see status.
That’s not to say there isn’t much to like about this lavishly staged production (Michael Yeargan’s sets certainly make you feel like the money is all on display). Taking the difficult-to-love role of Nellie, a woman willing to torpedo her own happiness because of her racial prejudices, Samantha Womack manages to make her (mostly) likeable and believable. Her accent occasionally wobbles but she is in fine voice – an energetic rendition of ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’ made all the more impressive when you know that the actress broke her toe just before opening night. Szot, reprising his multi-award-winning turn as Emile De Becque, might be a trifle stiff and offer an accent that comes from no part of France I was familiar with, but the man has a serious set of pipes. He absolutely nails ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ and his heartbreaking ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ had the audience rapturously applauding even before he finished. As a couple, however, the lovers lack chemistry, especially in the earlier scenes when one of them quite often looks at a loss as to what they should be doing when the other is singing. Luckily they do warm up a bit, so that by the second act you are more invested in the fate of their relationship, but it’s not the engaging pairing it should be.
The rest of the cast are solid, and there are some great group numbers, with the Seabees’ ‘Nothing Like a Dame’ and the ensemble’s ‘Honey Bun’ delightful standouts. Another Ex-EastEnder, Alex Ferns, provides ample comic support as the incorrigible Luther Billis, while Dominic Taylor and Nigel Williams, as Harbison and Captain Brackett respectively, are serious but sympathetic, though Daniel Koek’s Lieutenant Cable looks the part of the romantic hero but is slightly too insipid to inspire. The other New York transfer Loretta Ables Sayre gives a formidable and impressive performance as Bloody Mary – putting a nicely sinister spin on ‘Happy Talk’ – but it’s a problematic role. For a show highlighting the evils of racism, it seems a bit bare-faced to be peddling the outdated “Comedy Oriental” trope for all its worth. While Ables Sayre does at least give us a glimpse of the genuine desperation of a woman willing to pimp out her daughter to the highest bidder, it still feels uncomfortable to be supposed to be laughing at the little shouty woman with the funny accent.
Although the first act drags slightly, the action ramps up in the faster-paced second act, and director Bartlett Sher isn’t afraid to introduce proper darkness into the show – lines of troops and nurses heading off to an uncertain fate reminding us that this story is, after all, set in the middle of a war, and that this most classic of musicals is far from an uncomplicated pleasure.