South Pacific Review | Opera House | Manchester
The look of love is descending onto the Opera House audience as Roger and Hammerstein’s impactful soundtrack crafted around World War II continues to hit home 73 years after its premiere.
The distinctive classic’s candid look at love and race splits its story between nurse Nellie (Gina Beck) and Lieutenant Cable (Rob Houchen), both stationed by the army on a beautiful island in the Pacific. While the younger naïve Nellie falls head over heels with a worldly French planter, Cable finds his love at first sight with a local on the mystical neighbouring islands of Bali Ha'I.
Bali Ha'I is so dreamy it gets its own song sung by the island's entrepreneur Bloody Mary (Joanna Ampik) who reminds audiences of South Pacific’s magic and its personal issues surrounding race. Roger and Hammerstein's catchy Tony award-winning songs are never going out of style. However, the 1949 progressive and compassionate take on racism is a road paved with good intent and distorted Polynesian representation. Here, Bloody Mary’s broken English and daughter pimping role has been improved to give both women space to speak for themselves, with Ann Yee’s choreography transcending any language barrier. But the Pulitzer Prize winning musicals longevity is a testament to its overall memorable melodies and the storytellings uncompromising look at racism in which the song, You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught hammers home the musicals overall intent to recognise and fix our own intolerant attitudes.
Director Daniel Evans heartfelt production sings through despite the harsh environment. The shows choreography alongside the classic hits feel natural, with the song I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair bringing contagious joy as the Navy’s ladies jubilantly bubble up the Opera House stage. Comforting the effervescent Nellie as she gets over her heartbreak with her girlfriends help, this shows intelligent staging is powered by fantastic choreography.
Projections layered over sheet metal and a rotating stage move this production away from the warm and colourful collage of love that its film projects. The show also slows and alters the orchestrations of Happy Talk to focus its tone on the war, layering the danger as a constant in the characters lives.
The show's dismantled set design does allow Evans to pack the stage with a huge ensemble and in spots, nods to the vibrant, colour-blocking that covered the screen of its 1958 film. But as the live show focuses in on realism, it’s second act opens to a variety performance including the song Honey Bun that plays alongside the cancan-canning nurses and the grass skirt wearing officer. Officer Luther Douggie McMeekin is the show's comic relief, filling one-liners in between the declarations of love. The love struck show admits to playing with cliches but subverts many of them as Nellie is asked to spy on her boyfriend Julian for Navy purposes. Delving into his life she soon discovers a few, new couple secrets including the classics, I killed a man and I have two mixed-race children.
South Pacific delivers a positive message wrapped in beautiful performances that highlights everyday prejudice that continues to prevail in our society. Its story is crafted around tackling the rigid ideas of racism, that doesn’t just come from a man in a white hood, but instead forces its enthusiastic and likeable characters to admit their own hypocrisy whilst challenging the idea of love being truly colour blind.
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Tickets are available via the ATG link