My fondness of the musical numbers in South Pacific were amplified during my pregnancy with DT. I spent most afternoons on maternity leave with my feet up in the splendid company of Kiri-te-Kanawa, Jose Carreras and the legend that is Sarah Vaughan, listening to their 1986 studio cast recording of South Pacific. Personally, Sarah Vaughan’s interpretation of Bali Ha’i takes the song to a different level. Whenever I listen to her sing this song, I always feel that Bali Ha’i is so tangible that all I need to do is reach out and I can touch it. Anyway, I digress.

South Pacific is based on James A Michener’s Pulitzer Prize winner novel ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ and the musical theatre piece was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1950. Composed by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and a book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan South Pacific premiered on Broadway in 1949 and went on to win 10 Tony Awards. It was the first production to win Tony Awards in all four acting categories. In 2008, the Broadway revival won seven Tony’s including Best Musical Revival. Set on an island in World War Two, South Pacific tells the story of American Nurse Nellie Forbush, who falls in love with French plantation Owner Emile de Becque. However, she ends the relationship as she cannot accept Emile married a Polynesian woman and is the father of two mixed heritage children. A secondary plot involves US Marine Lieutenant Joe cable, a Princeton graduate, who falls in love with a young Tonkinese woman – Liat. Cable chooses not to marry Liat due to the social implications created by USA Marriage laws related to marrying someone of a different heritage.

South Pacific sent out a strong message about racism, which was progressive for its time and provoked controversy in some areas of the United States. The number You’ve got to be Carefully Taught sung by Joe cable, which details ingrained prejudice against people of “a different skin shade”, was thought to be too controversial and the writers were advised to cut the number from the show. They refused. As part of its festival 2021 programme, Chichester Festival Theatre Director Daniel Evans presents a new production of South Pacific.

David Cullen’s new orchestral arrangements soared through the auditorium and were delivered perfectly by Musical Director Cat Beveridge and the very talented group of musicians who are perched high above the stage. Set and costume designs by Peter McKintosh transports the viewer to the 1940s, whilst lighting design by Howard Harrison, and video design by Gillian Tan combine to transport the audience to the South Pacific. The map of the Pacific Islands projected onto the revolving stage was very effective. Ann Yee’s choreography was delivered with precision and professionalism by the extremely talented company.

There were so many wonderful performances in this production.

Rob Houchen’s (whose performance we really enjoyed in the lead role of Eugene in the production Eugenius!) voice really suited the songs of Joe Cable, and Younger than Springtime was one of our favourite numbers. Keir Charles played the character of Luther Billis with the right amount of comedic timing, whilst showing a sensitivity we hadn’t seen in previous productions. Joanna Ampil was convincing as Bloody Mary, her delivery of the new haunting arrangement of Happy Talk was just heartbreaking. I liked the fact that in this production the character of Liat was given a voice through the medium of dance. Sera Maehara’s interpretation of Ann Yee’s choreography gave me goosebumps. There was wonderful chemistry between Gina Beck as Nellie Forbush and Julian Ovenden as Emile de Becque. They both have incredible voices and delivered the well-known songs with the right mixture of power and emotion. Packed with marvellous performances, songs that stay in your head for days, South Pacific is a fantastic production and from the reaction of the Saturday Matinee audience I was not alone in my opinion.

This was our first visit to Festival Theatre in Chichester and our first visit to a theatre at full capacity following the lifting of the COVID19 restrictions. The staff were welcoming and friendly. Face coverings were advised to be worn throughout the performance unless you were eating or drinking and most of the audience followed this advice. Hand sanitising stations were accessible throughout the theatre and a one-way system was in operation in the ladies’ toilets. The Festival Theatre reminded me of the National, with its revolving stage set and various bars and café areas. This theatre is well worth a visit. As we are based in the Midlands, we made this a weekend trip staying in Bognor Regis, which offers a seaside location, reasonable priced accommodation and regular train and bus services to Chichester which is about a 20 minute journey.

South Pacific is at the Festival Theatre Chichester from July 5th until 5th September 2021.


Theatretastic 5/5:

We say: “Packed full of marvellous performances, songs that stay in your head for days, South Pacific is a fantastic production!”