Review: South Pacific, Barbican

“You can't light a fire when the wood is all wet"

It will be interesting to see how many, if any, of the print critics make reference to one of the most significant aspects of the Barbican’s import of the Lincoln Center production of South Pacific: the ticket prices. The majority of the stalls is priced at £85, making the slightly restricted view seats a whopping £65 and you have to go up to the upper circle before prices start to drop. Not willing to spend so much, we went for the second-cheapest option, up in the balcony / gallery - £20 seats which were reduced to £16 with my membership – rather disgracefully the membership discount only being applicable to the first four performances, thus this is a preview being reviewed here. But credit where it’s due, the seats were just like the normal ones, comfortable with lots of leg room and you really are not that far away from the stage at all: it is so nice to find a venue with cheap seats that don’t take the p*ss out of the audience member and their comfort.

But to the show. This was an extremely well-received production in New York, winning a handful of Tonys and running for 2 years, and so Bartlett Sher has sought to recreate its success for this engagement at the Barbican ahead of a UK tour, even bringing over three members of the original cast. There’s apparently 40 people in the cast (though I counted a few less) and an orchestra of 25 so words like lavish and breathtaking are being thrown around, presumably to mitigate for the pricing, though it is not evident that much investment has gone into the set design... It is one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most well known musicals, last seen in London ten years ago at the National Theatre but that was before my time here.

Set during World War II on a naval base where US sailors are waiting to be deployed in the Pacific War, American nurse Nellie Forbush falls for expat French plantation owner Emile de Becque but their happiness together is threatened by revelations in his past and her inability to deal with them, but also the arrival of actual combat. And of course there’s the score, stuffed full of bona fide classic songs like Bali Ha’i, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair, There’s Nothing Like A Dame, I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy and Some Enchanted Evening, it has a lot going for it.

But I have to say, and caveats about previews repeated here, little of that was in evidence when I saw it. The production felt rather lacklustre throughout, lacking in energy across the board, but crucially missing the key ingredient of chemistry between its leads. Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot plays Emile with a richly gorgeous tone of singing voice but one which feels more akin to a concert – people were ‘bravo’-ing his songs one by one – as it doesn’t glide seamlessly into place with the production as a whole, matters further exacerbated by a concurrent lack of focus on actual acting. There’s a strong element of personal taste to this, I don’t like Alfie Boe for much the same reason, but good musical theatre to me is more than just a strong singing voice.

On top of that, Samantha Womack as Nellie feels like a very strange piece of casting: her willingness to abandon the relative safety of a role in Eastenders to stretch her artistic wings is to be admired but I suspect this is a step too far. They end up making a strange couple, she has more of the acting chops than Szot but substantially less of the voice. Worse of all they are singularly lacking in any kind of chemistry together which robs the show of any kind of genuine emotion and without buying into their romance, what is left is not a pretty picture. Without the empathy for Nellie, the sympathy for her character that comes in the second half as a result of her racism feels so wrong; without feeling for Emile, there’s no sense of the tragedy of his decision – altogether, these emerge as difficult characters to care about but more importantly, not enough is done to make us care about their story.

Sher’s direction is very much on the ruminative and restrained side of things, one could even label it as an attempt at realism, and this is a distinct attempt to mark this as something other than a ‘Broadway musical’ per se. Its stance on inter-racial marriage sets it out as an interesting piece of social commentary especially considering when it was written but as it stands, I just don’t think this approach works. This approach simply saps the life out of the production: There’s Nothing Like A Dame feels rather flat, choreography being eschewed for a kind of co-ordinated movement here, but the straining for ‘realism’ is ridiculous in a song like this and so it doesn’t have the vitality it deserves. Likewise with the women’s number I’m Gonna Wash That Man, there’s hints of what fun could be had with the number but all of them dulled with the lack of follow-through.

Michael Yeargan’s set design underwhelmed, a cheap-looking beach stretching along the back of the stage, a naff-looking revolving platform for the talent-show stage and a set of panels dropping in to take us from military offices to French Colonial houses: only the airplane which appeared for a number really impressed. I can’t say I was much impressed by the supporting cast either: Alex Ferns made little impact as the cheeky Billis; Daniel Koek struggled to give his Lt Cable any discernable personality that might help us care about his plight and Elizabeth Chong is hamstrung by having nothing to work with as his love interest Liat.

The saving grace of the production is the pleasure of hearing a large orchestra play the score so brightly under Ted Sperling’s musical direction. And original cast member Loretta Ables Sayre has fun with Bloody Mary, bringing a mystic air to her songs and the one character whose emotional outburst I was actually convinced by. But there’s simply too much that doesn’t work here to make this anything less than a crushing disappointment: more than anything, I just found this tediously dull (though it should be said this was far from the prevailing attitude in an otherwise largely appreciative audience).

Running time: 3 long hours (with interval)
Programme: £6. Unconfirmed reports say that it is made out of actual Polynesian grass skirts which is why it is so expensive
Booking until 1st October and then touring to Manchester, Milton Keynes, Glasgow, Bristol, Oxford, and Southampton (check website for dates and when Szot is being replaced by Jason Howard for three weeks)

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