30 March 2012

South Pacific comes to Wimbledon

I had been reintroduced to musical theatre almost by accident and soon climbed to the top of the musical mountain to taste Les Miserables only to be bitterly disappointed.

I could have given up on musicals at that point or I could have persevered and tried one of the established classics. I am an adventurous soul so I decided to try again and was pleased to see that South Pacific was in town.

Unfortunately "in town" carries a price tag that I was not prepared to pay for an experiment so I waited for the show to head out of town to the provincial charms of Wimbledon.

I went in my usual state of few expectations. I knew little about the show, other than the all-important fact that it is by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, and I thought that I knew none of the songs.

The pricing of seats varies less when the top price is so much lower than in the West End so I pushed the boat out a little and went for a front row seat in the Dress Circle.

There I could sit happily and either join in the merry mumble of conversation going on around me or read the introduction on the safety screen.

The conductor arrived to some applause and started the overture. That caused some of the conversation to stop, but not very much.

From what I could hear above the hubbub it was clear that I did know some of the tunes, I just did not know where they came from.

South Pacific tells the love story of  Nellie Forbush, a U.S. Navy nurse from Little Rock Arkansas, and Emile de Becque, a much older French plantation owner.

The setting is an island in the south-west Pacific towards the end of World War II, close to the front-line with Japan. That provides us with the cast of characters, i.e. mostly American service people of one sort or another with a smattering of locals, and with a major plot line that takes Emile on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines.

Nellie and Emile are all but betrothed at the start of the play. They are clearly in love despite having met only recently.

They met, of course, on "Some Enchanted Evening" which provides the first big hit of the afternoon. Emile sings it beautifully too.

Nellie also gets plenty of chances to shine with other classics like I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair, sung to her friends when things cool between them.

The reason for this cooling is rather dated. Nellie is not upset that Emile was married previously or that his two children still live with him; the objection is that his ex-wife (now dead) was coloured.

South Pacific stretches out in several directions with major plots (the war) running alongside lesser ones (the servicemen's attempt to witness native girls dancing on another island).

There is another love story too, though this one ends less well and is also a little disturbing to watch as the girl looks incredibly young.

All of the twists and turns and ups and downs make this a rich canvass on which to heap on the music to produce something very good.

The cast are superb with just one slight blemish (Billis did not impress me) and while Nellie and Emile are, rightly, the stars there was enthusiastic applause at the end for several of the other characters.

Bloody Mary is certainly worth a mention here. She first appears as a comic character, a local woman selling grass skirts to the servicemen, and you do not really expect her to sing. Then she does a Susan Boyle and blows you over.

South Pacific may not have completely restored my faith in musical theatre but I'll be getting a ticket the next time that a Rodgers and Hammerstein show is around.

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