Gaming Editor Benjamin Oakden finds South Pacific to represent the issue of segregation perfectly, displaying societal issues in a mesmerising light
Roger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific was a landmark in the history of musical theatre, not only for its mass popularity and the strength of its score, but also its bold decision to include anti-racist themes to a segregated America. As such, I was intrigued to see both how successful director Daniel Evans would be in reviving the beloved musical, but also how well the plot would hold up in a changed world.
The production starts off strongly, dropping us into the budding romance of nurse Nellie (Gina Beck) and plantation owner Emile (Julian Ovenden). Their feelings for each other are revealed first to the audience through the song ‘Twin Soliloquies’, with the song climaxing in a beautiful Hollywood kiss as the stage is illumined with a cool blue light. Although the play isn’t without snags, it is these major, theatrical moments of song and emotion where it really comes into its own, and shows why the play resonates with people 73 years on.
South Pacific’s score is not only captivating but incredibly varied, from the jaunty ‘I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair’, the comic relief of Honey Bun, to the romance of the famous ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’ The songs are always able to capture and enhance the mood of each scene as well as being a perfect representation of the character that performs it. Each number is enhanced by the choice to use a rotating stage that is used in several creative ways, a particularly fine example is the choice to use candles in the song Younger than Springtime.
The song that deserves perhaps the most attention though is ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.’ South Pacific’s handling of racism was groundbreaking at the time, and the song’s message reflect the moral of the play- that hate is taught rather than being something innate or natural. The racial themes of the musical has not aged perfectly; while Nellie comes to accept Emile’s mixed-raced children, the implication is that she looks past her prejudices out of her love for Emile rather than actually changing them.
It may also be fair for modern audiences to point out that, as a plantation owner, Emile cannot act as the moral character of the play since he will have profited from the cheap foreign labour offered by the islanders. And yet, allowances have to be made for a play that’s over seven decades old, especially given how powerful the messages would have been at the time of release. Roger and Hammerstein attracted criticism and risked the play’s entire success to make a statement against segregation, something that was, and still is, extremely commendable.
In spite of the play’s strong themes and joyous soundtrack, South Pacific does have a few issues with its plot. The pacing can feel too slow at times, with much of the section that focuses on the island’s laundry service offering little to the plot. At the same time, the play’s B-plot of the relationship between Lieutenant Cable (Rob Houchen) and islander Liat (Sera Maehara) feels a little too rushed. While the time and the songs the couple share together are enjoyable, it would perhaps have been handled better if Liat was introduced a little earlier to give their relationship more time to blossom naturally.
Nellie’s feelings towards Emile also feel a little too erratic at times – in one instance she falls back in love with him minutes after singing an entire number about wanting to end their relationship. Given how well the conflict between the two characters over race is handled, the scenes where she has doubts over him before her prejudices are introduced feel a little contrived; introducing this conflict earlier on may again have helped to give it more natural.
These criticisms are minor however given the captivating spectacle of the production as a whole. Outside of a few issues with accents, the cast did a great job conveying the romance and emotion of the play. That, along with clever directorial choices in stage and lighting, make this a thoroughly enjoyable and faithful revival. South Pacific, with its landmark themes and timeless score, is rightfully considered one of the greatest musicals in history, and Evan’s version is an excellent way for you to experience that magic for yourself.
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