Old shows often pass nervously through today’s ideological mettle-detectors, especially when depicting racial and international relations. But Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a 1949 musical about American military and French economic exploitation of paradise islands, sets off impressively few alarms.
Oscar Hammerstein was an anti-racism writer and campaigner as early as 1927’s Show Boat, and South Pacific expands the agenda. Nurse Nellie Forbush’s rejection of Parisian émigré Emile de Becque – who has earlier stimulated her to sing “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy!” – when she discovers the widower has mixed-race children seems contemptible now, but was also condemned in the show 72 years ago.
A Rodgers and Hammerstein song, You’ll Never Walk Alone (from Carousel), is already a football anthem, and South Pacific’s You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught, arguing that racism is not innate but incubated within societies and families, might, after recent events, usefully be played on a loop outside Wembley Stadium, 10 Downing Street and the Home Office.
Hammerstein mentored Stephen Sondheim, and the pupil’s Pacific Overtures (1976) nods, in title and critique of colonialism, to the earlier work. That through-line feels emphasised in this South Pacific by director Daniel Evans, musical director Cat Beveridge and choreographer Ann Yee.
The show usually straddles a contradiction between lush music for optimistic lyrics – A Cock-Eyed Optimist, Some Enchanted Evening, Happy Talk – and a story bordered by violence and bigotry. Here, the tones converge more, with Joanna Ampil’s complexly earthy entrepreneur, Bloody Mary, subverting Happy Talk as a ritualistic prayer that has lost its power. The opposing pair of gender-specific dating anthems, Nothing Like a Dame and Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair are danced and sung with the requisite ecstatic vigour.
South Pacific, following period Broadway convention, can seem unsatisfyingly front-loaded, its final act dominated by dialogue and reprise. But this production triumphantly negotiates those limitations, as well as the obstacles of staging a large-scale musical with socially distanced rehearsals and performances. And the venue may be helped to go beyond Public Health England advice on ventilating venues by the real threat to the roof from Gina Beck’s clarion soprano and Julian Ovenden’s emotive tenor voices as Nellie and Emile, confirming them as superstars of musical theatre.