South Pacific is a show that has history, and by that, I mean a ton of awards, critical acclaim and songs that resonate with people across the world. It makes it quite a challenge to reinvent such a musical, considering its last long stint was on Broadway from 1949-1954. Director Bartlett Shar took on that challenge and brought the show back to Broadway in 2008 for a reinvented, glossy version of South Pacific which resulted in all the praise it deserved the first time around. We’re lucky enough to have it here in Leeds now, brought to us by the entire Lincoln Center creative team.
We were there on opening night to see what could easily be a dated storyline brought back to life. The story focuses on two couples who get together as a result of Navy stationing in WWII on a beautiful island in the South Pacific. Addressing racial prejudice and (to some degree) the impact of the war, the story is the classic love-across-the-divide (unless you count Romeo and Juliet, in which case, that is probably the classic).
The success of this production is down to the fact that it doesn’t try too hard to force the storyline to be current, or the scenery to reflect in any way, the modern day. It is simply a step back in time, to a completely different way of life. Smart set design by Michael Yeargen frames the entire set with bamboo shutters that are raised and lowered both in front and behind the action, so you’re always aware of the fact that this is another world, another place, another time.
Ultimately, what really steals this show is Samantha Womack. She is completely mesmerising, we couldn’t take our eyes off of her. She has perfected an American southern drawl, sings as if she’s never been off the boards and is so unbelievably beautiful that you can’t help but drool a bit. There are also a fantastic troup of male chorus members who wowed the audience with their renditions of “Bloody Mary” and “There is Nothing Like a Dame”, and also because of their gratuitous outfits. I mean costumes.
The second real stand-out performance came from a truly fantastic understudy, Cameron Jack, playing Luther Billis. The role which is played as standard by Alex Ferns (of Trevor from Eastenders fame), adds comedy to the production with crowd-pleasing drag and general silliness.
A production like this always needs a trusty baritone as the major love interest of the female protagonist (Nelly, played by Samantha Womack) and Matthew Cammelle did an excellent job of portraying Emile de Becque and sang Some Enchanted Evening to a standing ovation.
South Pacific is a gorgeous show, it doesn’t have the pace of a modern musical but you’ll know pretty much every song: I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair, Some Enchanted Evening, There is Nothing Like a Dame and (you won’t recognise it until you hear it) Bali H’ai. Highly recommended by us, South Pacific is a bit of glam in Leeds.
South Pacific is playing at Leeds Grand Theatre until the 7th July, call the box office on 0844 848 2700 or visit the website to buy tickets.
Review by Heather Healy (Twitter: @heatherhealy)