Commendable blast of nostalgia

Andrea Fourie as Nellie Forbush and Riaan Hunter as Emile de Becque in G&S’s South Pacific. Picture by James Maritz.

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Stage: South Pacific – Artscape, Cape Town
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
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IT IS not often in South Africa that one gets to see large-scale productions of classics from the golden age of musicals. So kudos to Cape Town’s G&S, a well-established community theatre organisation, that has chosen a Rodgers and Hammerstein evergreen for its 107th production in the Mother City.

It is fitting that the choice is South Pacific, a winner of 10 Tony Awards, because both that show and the G&S organisation are of similar age. The 1949 musical, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, was based on the James A Michener book, Tales of the South Pacific. That was written in 1947, the year the G&S company was founded with a staging of The Yeomen of the Guard in the Cape Town City Hall.

Charlene Martin as Bloody Mary and Laura-Jo Diedericks as Liat in South Pacific. Picture by James Maritz.

G&S has since become noted for both its Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas and popular musicals which have been of a high standard and played to critical acclaim both locally and internationally.

South Pacific, set in 1942 and focusing on the lives, loves, prejudices and other problems of military personnel stationed on two fictitious islands after the attack on Pearl Harbour, is running at Cape Town’s Artscape main theatre until August 10.

Marking the fifth Rodgers and Hammerstein musical produced by the company, it is under the direction of Kyla Thorburn, who is also responsible for the choreography, and emerges as a fun, commendably ambitious show –  a wonderful salute to nostalgia and an enchanting evening out.

The musical features two alternating ­casts totalling 77 performers, of which 58 are in each performance, accompanied by the 38-piece Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of musical director and conductor Alastair Cockburn.

The show opens with the rousing overture providing a backdrop to footage of the written words of James Michener’s description of the South Pacific islands. Special mention to video designer Kirsti Cumming for this and for providing other subtle, impressive AV moments including bobbing waves and, in one striking scene, the arrival of war ships.

Neil Leachman as clown sailor Luther Bilis in South Pacific, directed by Kyla Thorburn.

The story centres on American forces assigned to the Pacific to protect islanders against Japanese invasion. It’s a romantic drama for which writer Hammerstein, together with Joshua Logan, won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The story’s main focus is on two love affairs – one between the bubbly Nellie, a nurse from Little Rock in Arkansas, who falls for the handsome Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner with a secret; and the other between young Lt Joseph Cable and islander Liat, the daughter of rotund and rowdy Bloody Mary, whose business is selling trinkets and grass skirts.

As the war against Japan escalates, reality sets in for both Nellie and Joseph, who struggle to reconcile their unconventional love affairs with their long-held prejudices and insecurities.

Thorburn’s direction takes care to ensure even the smallest role players in the background are not ignored, and if a few in the chorus sometimes exude a little too much zeal at times it is never a big distraction.

Vocally, the musical is most satisfying, standouts the night I was in including Andrea Fourie as Nellie, who nails and maintains the American accent, has a sweet voice and fills the role with a bountiful exuberance. She is alternating in the role with Sian Atterbury.

Biggest applause, vocally, goes to towering, bearded Riaan Hunter, who makes for a dashing Emile, has a rich, booming baritone, and does pretty well with the French accent. The role is being alternated with Stephan le Roux.

Richard White as Lt Joseph Cable in South Pacific. Picture by James Maritz.

Charlene Martin makes for a fun Bloody Mary (a role being alternated with Siyavuja Vukutu) and gets to perform two of the show’s catchiest songs, Happy Talk and Bali Hai; while Richard White (who is alternating with Simon Thompson) proves a confident Lt Cable and has an engaging voice.

Special mention, too, for lively Neil Leachman as clown sailor Luther Bilis (a hoot, in drag, in the showstopping Honey Bun comedy routine). He is alternating the role with Andrew Weiss and Robert Shenton.

Among other supporting roles, Michael Harris’s authoritative Captain George Brackett emerges as a standout, while the children playing Emile’s two offspring are suitably sweet-voiced and charming.

South Pacific has a glorious score – the original cast album was the bestselling record of the 1940s – and includes such evergreens as Some Enchanted Evening, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair, There’s Nothing Like a Dame and Younger Than Springtime.

There were some minor little hiccups the night I was in, including microphones occasionally not being on when they should have been, but if I have any major quibble it is with the show’s length. They liked their shows l-o-n-g back in them days, and I personally would have enjoyed this production more had it had some careful pruning. Three hours is a long haul.

That all said, this staging has much to recommend it – not least period costumes and effective set designs by Michael Mitchell – and deserves support.

South Pacific is being performed at the Artscape main theatre from Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30pm and has 2.30pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets range in price from R150 to R290. Book at Computicket and by calling Artscape Dial-a-Seat on (021) 4217695.

A scene from South Pacific at Cape Town’s Artscape Theatre until August 10.
Nellie (Andrea Fourie) and colleagues in a scene from South Pacific.
Sian Atterbury as Nellie Forbush and Stephan le Roux as Emile de Becque in G&S’s South Pacific. Picture by James Maritz.

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