Chichester Festival Theatre has become known for taking on some of the most challenging classics and transforming them into a triumph. Daniel Evans’s lively reappraisal of South Pacific is no exception.
It is easy to question why we still stage Rogers and Hammerstein hits. South Pacific was seen as overtly radical when it first opened in the post-War era: audiences were surprised to find racism, colonialism, and violent bigotry embedded amongst beautiful music and exquisite romance. It’s a musical full of contradictions and complications and is not without its shortcomings. Indeed, the two leads themselves are a pair of paradoxes: cheery American nurse Nellie reveals herself to be a racist; French expatriate Emile appears to have an informed view of racial injustice, yet he owns a plantation. However, although the show seems outdated on the surface, the events of the past year have thrust its politics into the forefront of mainstream consciousness.
In recognising this, Daniel Evans has worked to refocus the show to fit the lens of the contemporary, post-lockdown viewer; his acute awareness of the tropes of previous renditions is evident in his subsequent reinvention of them. Here, Bloody Mary is reimagined by Joanna Ampil as strong and assertive, willing to do anything to ensure the safety and security of her daughter Liat. Liat herself, who has very few words in the text, is given a language of gesture and dance through Ann Yee’s delicate choreography. As a result, Liat is provided with the autonomy she has previously been denied, and her relationship with Rob Houchen’s charming lieutenant feels more balanced, tender and utterly devastating when disaster strikes in the second act. It is enlightening to see that the conversation about race is not only addressed in this production, but actively given time for the audience to recognise why it matters.
Cat Beveridge’s orchestral rearrangement of the original score somehow adds more texture and warmth, yet it is so subtle that even purists will not be disappointed. The fact that the cast is full of exceptional voices only enhances her success; Julian Ovenden’s butter-melting tenor certainly had me reaching for tissues after his first go at ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. I am intrigued to learn that Hammerstein was originally advised to cut the lieutenant’s solo, ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’. Houchen’s honest rendition cements it as a commentary on how prejudice is so easily indoctrinated in personal circles. Perhaps it should become an anthem of sorts…
The pacing of the show is slow in places, with some scenes leaving you glancing at your watch. Nevertheless, there is so much joy in this production, with Evans not shying away from flamboyance: the two juxtaposing, gendered songs ‘Nothing Like a Dame’ and ‘Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair’ are performed with the required gusto, complete with breathless choreography and working showers. Peter McKintosh’s design makes expert use of Chichester’s revolve, which creates both urgency and tenderness as the effects of war consume the island.
Ultimately, Daniel Evans has once again proven himself to be a master of musical theatre and a real asset to Chichester Festival Theatre, even in a time of COVID-19 restrictions. An enchanted evening indeed.
South Pacific is on at Chichester Festival Theatre until 5 September 2021. For more information and tickets see Chichester Festival Theatre’s website.