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 The Theatreguide.London Review

South Pacific
Barbican Theatre     Autumn 2011

Arguably the best musical ever, the epitome of Broadway's Golden Age, this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is in London for a short season only, and I urge you to see it. 

Yes, there are some imperfections, but they are more than outweighed by all that is superb about this revival. 

Foremost, of course, is the glorious Rodgers and Hammerstein score. 'Some Enchanted Evening' – need I say more? Well, there's 'Bali Hai', 'Nothin Like A Dame', 'Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair', 'Younger Than Springtime' – careers and reputations have been built on writing one or two songs of that quality, and these (and others) are all in the same show. 

To hear the delicate 'Dites-Moi', the bouncy 'Cockeyed Optimist', the haunting 'Twin Soliloquies' and the iconic 'Some Enchanted Evening', one right after the other, is to be overwhelmed with riches - and that's just in the first scene. 

The second reason for seeing this particular production is Samantha Womack as Nellie Forbush, the army nurse from Arkansas who falls in love with a French planter on a Pacific island during World War Two. 

Perky as all get out, but without ever being saccharine, Womack captures all the character's all-American openness and naivete, qualities the plot depends on because she will have to move beyond them. And cast among operatically-trained singers, Womack's more natural style brings a freshness and dramatic believability to her songs, making her the first Nellie in my experience to bear comparison to – and sometimes evoke echoes of – Mary Martin. 

The role of Emile De Becque is being shared by two operatic stars, Paulo Szot in the opening and closing weeks and Jason Howard through most of September.

Howard sings beautifully, though he is apt to slip into the operatic error of playing the notes rather than the words; ignore the meaning and 'Some Enchanted Evening' is lovely to hear, but Howard misses the painful yearning of the character. He's far more successful later with 'This Nearly Was Mine', where he captures both the music and the passion, and earns the biggest ovation of the night. 

As Lieutenant Cable, the posh young man confused by his love for a native girl, Daniel Koek is appropriately handsome but also sings notes more than words, conveying no more yearning in 'Younger Than Springtime' than anger in 'Carefully Taught', both of which come out as just pretty and content-less melodies. 

Loretta Ables Sayre isn't the best-voiced Bloody Mary ever, but she acts her songs powerfully, luring us to Bali Hai as much with what she implies with her words as with Rodgers' haunting melody. And in one of director Bartlett Sher's most evocative innovations, 'Happy Talk' is not an innocent children's game but Mary's desperate attempt to keep the feverish Cable focussed on her daughter. 

Alex Ferns doesn't make much of an impression as Luther Billis, Christopher Gattelli's choreography is adequate without ever becoming special, nor is there anything particularly innovative in the serviceable stage design. 

But I do have to offer sincere praise to the sound design of Scott Lehrer who, in a combination of technical expertise and good taste too rare among soundmen, doesn't overwhelm us with artificial volume but allows the illusion that we are hearing natural human voices coming from the singers themselves and not some speakers way over there.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   South Pacific  - Barbican 2011

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