Review: South Pacific, Leeds Grand Theatre, 26/06/2012
When? Tuesday 26th June 2012
Where? Grand Theatre, Leeds, stalls
Who? Samantha Womack, Matthew Cammelle, Cameron Jack, Daniel Koek, Jodi Kimura, Elizabeth Chong, Luke Kempner, Dominic Taylor, Nigel Williams, Carly Anderson, Jill Armour, James Austen Murray, Chris Bennett, Lawrence Carmichael, Mairi Cowieson, Stephen John Davis, Eddie Elliott, Maria Lawson, Nyron Levy, Dean Maynard, Adam Pritchard, Rebecca Seale, Dominic Smith, Mikel Sylvanus, Danny Whitehead, Bleu Woodward, Nick Wyschna, Matthew Crowe, Lisa Dent, Chris Jenkins, Sophia-Rose Kerry, Nicholais Kerry
I am certainly no stranger to Bartlett Sher’s sumptuous 2008 Lincoln Center production of South Pacific, which arrived at the Leeds Grand Theatre last night. I have had the pleasure of seeing the production (winner of seven Tony awards) both home and abroad – and the show has lost none of its charm, appeal or, most importantly, quality since my first visit. Sher’s South Pacific has rightly been recognised as one of the great classic musical revivals and, in my opinion, this tour is the finest and most grandiose touring musical theatre production in recent history.
Sher’s production is the first full-scale revival to hit Broadway, and presently the UK touring circuit, in almost forty-five years and it has a lot to say, always doing so with clarity, beauty and intelligence. Unlike many classic musicals, the message of South Pacific is timeless and universal; it teaches but never preaches. The central love story between self-confessed ‘hick’ Ensign Nellie Forbush (Samantha Womack) and refined French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Matthew Cammelle) is entirely believable and the central theme of racial prejudice is never used cheaply or without factual historical justification. The second act ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught’ sung by Lt. Joseph Cable (Daniel Koek) provides a seething indictment of the inherently racist culture of the day, speaking almost directly to the audience and asking them to examine their own prejudice. Indeed, it was this perceived ‘communist agenda’ which saw the song cut when performed in some Southern United States. Cable, himself, cannot hide his self-loathing for the prejudice he feels, risking his own chance of happiness with native beauty Liat (Elizabeth Chong).
But it isn’t all politics; the book is extremely good, but it would mean far less without Rodgers and Hammerstein’s iconic score. Accomplished Musical Director Jae Alexander produces an incredible sound from his talented seventeen piece orchestra; from the moment the Overture swells the audience are tuned in. South Pacific boasts an incredible amount of memorable tunes: “Dites-Moi”, “Some Enchanted Evening”, “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame”, “Bali H’ai”, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”, “A Wonderful Guy”, “Younger Than Springtime”, “Honey Bun”. South Pacific is a masterclass of how to work in some truly wonderful showtunes to a meaningful and deep story, one moment you may be tapping along to a belting production number, the next you are fighting back a tear. South Pacific is a masterpiece.
Originally designed for a thrust stage, the adaptation to a standard proscenium arch changes little; Michael Yeargan’s designs are delicious and set the scene wonderfully well with wooden shutters giving that desired ‘thrown together’ native shack feel; similarly the costumes (Catherine Zuber) are perfect in that they are rather worn (by stage standards!) giving that touch of realism which is so often overlooked. The second act ‘variety show’ segment sends this up wonderfully well, the script calling for costumes made from recycled bric-a-brac – we get just that! Donald Holder’s crisp, island paradise lighting deserves praise as does Richard Mawbey’s good wig work, particularly with Womack’s Mitzi Gaynorish rug.
The outstanding cast more than do the production justice; Samantha Womack makes a very likeable Nellie Forbush and excels with her acting throughout, overcoming the difficulty of the curveball act one finale wonderfully well and keeping the audience on side. Matthew Cammelle, who has replaced the superb Jason Howard since my last visit, does a good job and looks entirely comfortable as Emile de Becque, his bass-baritone voice is perfect for this role and he shares some lovely moments with Womack and his stage children. Daniel Koek, returning to the Leeds Grand stage for the first time since 2008′s Sadler’s Wells production of West Side Story, sings absolutely beautifully and is one of the finest pure tenor voices I have heard sing the part. Much like in 2010′s Chess, Koek doesn’t solely rely on his outstanding vocals; he has clearly worked very hard on his acting in recent years and has come a long way to give such a well-judged Lt. Cable. Jodi Kimura is also excellent as Bloody Mary, proving far less sinister than her predecessor, Tony Award winner Loretta Ables Sayre. Kimura had played the part for eighteen months on the US tour, so she brings a wealth of experience to the part and it shows, right down to the exaggerated physicality she adopts for the role, her Bloody Mary is more entertaining than scary.
Across the ensemble the quality is sky-high; Cameron Jack, covering for Alex Ferns, gives a very funny take on Luther Billis – the comedy relief of the show – his New York accent is perfect, as is his comic timing, his dragged-up second act performance at the variety show was particularly memorable! On this evidence, Jack has a lot to offer and I’m looking forward to seeing him in future roles. Nigel Williams and Dominic Taylor are solid as the authority figures Captain Brackett and Commander Harbison, largely playing with a straight bat. Stephen John Davis, whom I had previously seen as The Phantom and as Javert in Les Misérables in the West End, makes the most out of his ensemble role as a Seabee, particularly being allowed to shine in “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame”. I would be very interested to see what Davis was able to do with the role of Emile de Becque, for which he is first cover, as he possesses an outstanding voice and has proven he can cut it in the top roles in musical theatre.
I simply cannot rave about this production enough. The cast and orchestra are among the finest I have ever seen in a national touring production and the production values are mind-blowing. South Pacific is the definition of a must-see show. South Pacific plays at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 7th July 2012.
- Harry Zing