There is a dark undertone simmering beneath Michael Yeargan’s postcard-perfect sets. The violet-hued sunsets belie the racial tension, sexual frustration and threat of death that hangs over the Seabees, soldiers and ensign nurses of the South Pacific.
Director Bartlett Sher has judged the balance just right in his Tony-winning production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 musical, which now comes to the Barbican.
The story follows ensign Nellie Forbush, a young nurse who chose to escape Little Rock, Arkansas, to see the world, yet her posting to the South Pacific war zone shows her that perhaps she can’t escape her upbringing all that easily. After falling for French plantation owner Emile, she then rejects him when she discovers he has two children by his late partner, a Polynesian woman. Meanwhile, racial tensions are also starkly painted in the relationship between American GI Lieutenant Cable and local girl Liat.
So many of the songs in South Pacific have become popular standards outside of the story’s context that it is easy to forget their meaning, yet Sher offsets the prettiness of the music with a cruder realism. There Is Nothing Like A Dame is a good example; as the Seabees sing what could be just a cheerful ditty about the men’s desire for female company, Sher cuts to the chase, using rough, masculine gestures to emphasise that this is really about sex – or lack of. Likewise, the seediness of Cable’s first meeting with Liat is not glossed over; this is a girl being prostituted by her mother, Bloody Mary, in order that they both may have a better life.
But the heart of the story lies with Emile and Nellie. Paulo Szot and Samantha Womack make a pleasing pairing, showing the contrasting yet complementary natures of the characters. Womack – doing sterling work last night by performing with a broken toe – captures the naivety of a young woman who has a good heart but who finds herself out of her depth when faced with issues so alien to her Deep South upbringing. Szot’s Emile is infinitely wiser about the realities of the world, which perhaps explains why he is so entranced by Nellie, the bright and beautiful product of an idealistic land.
Reprising her role from Broadway, Loretta Ables Sayre is both endearing and slightly repulsive as Bloody Mary, the street trader who makes a living from grass skirts and shrunken heads, while pushing her daughter on Cable. Meanwhile Alex Ferns has some star turns as roguish Seabee Luther Billis, whose impetuous, fiery nature is tempered by a heart of gold. His drag performance in grass skirt, wig and coconut-shell breasts during the Thanksgiving Follies is one which will stay with me for a long while.
This is one of many bright moments in Sher’s production; and there are many, because while it doesn’t shirk from its unsavoury themes, neither does it reject opportunities for delightful comedy. A bittersweet piece then, with enough light and shade to fill a South Pacific island.