Perhaps the most surprising thing about this Lincoln Centre production of South Pacific is that it was the first revival to appear on Broadway since the original in 1949. A curiosity considering the show features one of Richard Rodgers’ most memorable and evocative scores and some of Oscar Hammerstein’s most witty and poignant lyrics. South Pacific was an undeniable success that originally ran for five years, breaking musical theatre boundaries in terms of theme and structure while appealing to a contemporary audience for whom the scars of Second World War were still fresh.
Paulo Szot (Emile) and Samantha Womack (Nellie) in South Pacific at the Barbican, London Photo: Simon Annand
For his much lauded revival, director Bartlett Sher concentrates on darker elements within the story, most notably the inherent racism of the period. Recognising this thread may allow for a richer more deeply textured interpretation of the narrative, but somewhere along the line he has managed to eliminate both the romance and the fantasy.
A lack of romance in this story is fatal and yet neither couple convince. Paulo Szot is perfectly appealing as French planter Emile de Becque, if slightly wooden at times though musically he more than delivers the goods. Samantha Womack’s corn pone Nellie Forbush, is efficient and attractive but rarely warm. There is simply no chemistry between her and Szot on stage and this echoes throughout the piece.
Daniel Koek as Joe Cable sings beautifully but lacks any of the charisma that is supposed to attract either Billis, Bloody Mary or even Elizabeth Chong’s enchanting Liat to his side. There are, however, two very worthwhile performances here, notably Loretta Ables Sayre giving a welcome three-dimensions to the character of Bloody Mary and Alex Ferns as an engaging and thankfully entertaining Luther Billis.
Sher’s slavish adherence to the complete score and the inclusion of a deleted number ensures that audiences get all the meat and bones of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway hit, but with sadly very little of its spirit.