The much-anticipated transfer of the Tony award-winning Lincoln Centre production has raised expectations far too high – whilst the set is beautiful, don’t expect to be swept away to sea with the romance of it all.
Whilst much of the audience seemed to be loving press night at the Barbican, I couldn’t help but come away feeling a little cold. Something must have been lost on the Transatlantic flight – Loretta Ables Sayre’s fantastic performance as Bloody Mary gives a hint of what may have been experienced in New York, but the other transferring cast member, Paulo Szot (Emile De Becque) managed to show off his prowess as a Baritone yet fail to convey any chemistry at all with his leading lady. Within a plot that feels outdated to the stage of uncomfortableness at points, this dragged away the possibility of even becoming immersed in a convincing love story, as it was impossible to see how Nellie had fallen for the charmless Emile at all.
Samantha Womack (Nellie) has transferred from the Square to the Stage well – her voice and performance were impressive, and even more so for the fact that she had been diagnosed with a broken toe that day, yet continued with her entire routine. Anyone could be forgiven for letting this push their performance into ‘cautiousness’ as many have criticised. She climbed ladders, donned heels and did high kicks – my wincing in sympathy must have been far more obvious than any discomfort detected from the leading lady. No word but ‘Trooper’ would be adequate here.
As a less than ardent fan of Rogers & Hammerstein, I inevitably came to this performance ill prepared to revel in nostalgia. Yet I couldn’t have been alone in feeling that the production did not feel like a modern interpretation in the slightest. The world of race relations today is (thank God) unrecognisable from the 1950s. In South Pacific’s original form, Nellie is seen as a heroine for eventually learning to love the two coloured children of her widower partner. However, in the modern world the fact that she initially rejected Emile for his previous marriage to a negro simply loses any sympathy and understanding for Nellie. We are ambivalent to her transformation both because we disagree with her original standpoint, and because we didn’t believe in her true feelings to start with.
That’s not even mentioning the Lieutenant Cable-Liet relationship, during which the ‘love story’ was completely obscured by the ‘Child Prostitution’ siren wailing between my ears. A modern audience is not going to see the liaison of a serviceman and a young teenager (facilitated by her mother) as a ‘beautiful romance’. Especially when he expresses his awe by singing that she is ‘younger than springtime’. Creepy.
Credit where credit is due – this show looks very impressive. The staging and the costume convey a beautiful island paradise hit with the realities of wartime spectacularly.The male chorus are fantastic, bringing the show to life and providing comedy from ‘There is Nothing Like a Dame’ onwards, but they can’t make up for the integral problems in this production. It’s sad, but unless you’re a die hard fan of the original songs and interested to see this new take on it, I wouldn’t bother – there is far more interesting stuff out there. In fact, Betty Blue Eyes has just announced its closure, so I’d go along to that instead during it’s final 5 weeks to September 24th.