The South Pacific - A vast expanse of emptiness dotted with little island gems
The world was a very different place when Rodgers and Hammerstein created South Pacific. It was larger, less travelled and as such, more mysterious. Peoples' opinions and beliefs were more rooted in the culture of their home towns and prejudice sat silently behind every decision. On one hand, the story is a fun loving musical about an American base on the farthest reaches of Uncle Sam's West Coast frontier - on the other hand it is a veiled attempt at painting a twee fairy tale of good overcoming evil and love conquering even the staunchest of bigotries.
The set-up is typical R and H - introduce a strong, powerful, confident bachelor with a long established routine and an honourable, if somewhat distant, reputation. Add to that a young woman, pretty, simple yet determined who creates a maelstrom that rips through his ordered life. Slip into the background some lovable 'rouges' and a presumably innocent side story and, hey presto! you've got a musical.
Darlington Operatic Society again shows why it is the region's greatest amateur production company – the strength in depth that they have throughout their cast & crew must make many professional companies green with envy. The sets make clever use of the depth of the stage without ever feeling that they are cluttered yet manage to give a great sense of both the expanse of the Pacific coupled with the claustrophobia of a tiny area far from the mainland.
For most who know this show, there are the key standout parts against which any performer will be judged – Nellie Forbush, Emile De Becque, Lt Cable, Liat, Bloody Mary and SeaBee Billis are arguably the main protagonists on whom the audience will be focussed. Kat Flynn takes on Nellie with a brilliant mid-south accent and a delightful mix of girly charm and womanly knowhow. Kat is a much accomplished dancer, actor and singer and this role gives her a wonderful canvass on which to display all her talents. Even when faced with a tumbling coffee pot she never missed a beat and is able to sing beautifully in character with her American vowels ringing loud and true. It is rare to find Nellie being played by such a genuinely lovely leading lady, often they have a great voice but struggle to portray the vulnerability of a home and love sick woman thousands of miles away from her comfort zone and for this I think that Kat is the best Nellie I have seen.
Playing opposite Kat is Julian Cound, now one of DOS’s elder statesmen (tho only in comparison to the majority of the cast) and, as they say, with age comes experience, wisdom and calm authority. He glides through the role with complete assuredness and delivers the now much expected virtuoso solos in Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly was Mine. There is much made in the story of the age difference between Nellie and Emile so it was expert casting to ensure this element remained very believable in the two leads.
As mentioned earlier, when R & H wrote this tale the world was a different place where the act of racial stereotypes was not viewed with the same indignation as it is today. The image of a domineering local woman who will do anything to please the temporary islanders whilst trying to make as much money as possible is not necessarily alien to the current world, but their characterisation of Bloody Mary leaves a less than pleasant taste in the mouth –she does, after all, try to sell/marry off her (very) young daughter and thinks nothing of allowing some ‘pre-marital relations’. To make this role fit with the feeling of the time without becoming a parody of itself is not an easy task – Mary has to deliver both admiration and repulsion and as such Zoe Kent deserves great credit – we’ve seen from previous productions that Zoe can sing & dance with the best of them but it took only a few minutes on stage for the audience to be drawn towards this character like rubberneckers passing a motorway accident. Mary is not a nice person, even her delivery of Happy Talk, for many an innocent song of childish rhymes, is laced with the undercurrent of ‘selling off’ her daughter and trying to persuade Lt Cable to agree to the marriage; Zoe brings out this dark side of Mary perfectly. Michael Hirst, as Lt Joe Cable, is, once again, the chisel chinned hunk of the show, and, for this one, the ladies get to see a lot more of Michael than they have ever before – he keeps Joe distant and quite aloof throughout, never relaxed with either the Seabees or the Officers and always giving the impression that he’s lost without a real purpose until his final mission is approved. Often, Lt Cable is played as an older guy but it works so much better having a young 20-something to give him the confused, frustrated edge borne from being plunged into the war at such a young and tender age. Michael manages to maintain this reservedness even when playing directly opposite Zoe Birkbeck (as Liat, Mary’s daughter) – he resists the loutish, over-the-top behaviours the other Seabees display when the girls run by and seems almost embarrassed that Mary pushes them together. I have to say that this is by far the best acting I’ve seen for years – how someone can feign indifference when being ‘offered’ the beautiful Zoe B must surely rival the acting greats.
The Seabees, led by antics if not by rank by Luther Billis, constantly provide the backdrop onto which the two love stories are projected. Billis, played by Ben Connor, is the clown, the ring leader, the gang master and yet still has the sensibility to recognise when Nellie is obviously feeling fragile & vulnerable. Ben has grown over the years from an accomplished singer & dancer to a genuinely funny guy with great comic timing, perfect delivery and an amazing style in bikini tops and grass skirts – it is a like a guarantee of laughs when you see his name on the cast list. The rest of the Seabees is made from the DOS Boys who are becoming renowned as a comic group in their own right; their mix of characters, styles and vocal abilities (including the amazing bass tones of Ethan Hurworth) has given them a collective identity which could easily transfer into their own comedy sketch show.
Of course, the musical score for South Pacific is one of the best known of all of R & H’s and the sweeping orchestral overtures are expertly conducted and directed by Michael Trotter, for whom this is his final DOS production. Michael has been instrumental (every pun intended) in bringing the successes that DOS have enjoyed over the past 19 years – it has been Michael’s passion and dedication that has enabled DOS to reach ever upwards, to stretch themselves and to dare to dream of putting on bigger and more ambitious shows, for without the music there can be no musical. Not only has Michael been responsible for assembling and conducting the live orchestras, but he has also scored the vocal parts and taught complex harmonies for leads and choir alike.
It was very evident when looking around the theatre that a South Pacific audience has a clearly defined demographic – its story and setting doesn’t immediately appeal to the younger theatre goer brought up on Sister Act, Hairspray, Footloose or the Full Monty and yet, due in the main to the excellent DOS production, it is easily worth the ticket price regardless of your age.
South Pacific is on show at Darlington Civic Theatre until Saturday 31st October.