South Pacific at Sunderland Empire until Saturday
THERE is a whole generation for whom the rolling, romantic numbers of this Rodgers and Hammerstein wartime epic form the soundtrack to their early lives.
When I was a child and my parents’ record collection could be counted on the fingers of two hands and a foot, this was the disc with the most dog-eared sleeve.
That was the soundtrack to the film with Mitzi Gaynor as Ensign Nellie Forbush, the l’il nurse from L’il Rock – aka Hicksville, USA – who winds up on a South Pacific island where the American forces are working out how to dislodge the Japs.
There she falls not for a marine with biceps like basketballs but a French plantation owner – probably twice her age – who settled there to escape from demons back home.
On this tour the part is taken by Helena Blackman, a young lady with a sizeable TV profile. She was runner up to Connie Fisher in How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?
While the show made many people squirm, there was no doubting the talent of the participants and Helena gave Connie a very good run for her money.
Arguably coming second was the best thing that could have happened to her. Unlike poor Connie (she would, of course, dispute that description), Helena will never have to sing So Long, Farewell again unless she absolutely wants to.
Here she imbues Nellie with all the requisite gaucheness and charm. And last night she treated a full house to the singing prowess which made her one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s darlings.
It’s potentially awkward, of course, the affair between a bright young thing and an older man who has children by a Polynesian wife, now deceased – a fact which jars with Nellie’s background and upbringing.
But it’s Dave Willetts playing Emile de Becque and he’s one of our great musical stars. He’s hugely popular here, too, where he has appeared regularly.
With him in the part, you can believe why Nellie would fall for the guy. Not only an accomplished actor, Willetts has a wonderful voice, strong and smooth – the perfect vehicle for Some Enchanted Evening which glided over an auditorium in which you could otherwise have heard a pin drop.
There’s plenty of rumbustious humour in South Pacific, largely provided by those muscular marines who get to sing hearty numbers such as There’s Nothing Like A Dame.
Christopher Howell dons the coconuts and grass skirt as spivvy Luther Billis, a kind of big-hearted anti-hero. And mention must also be made of Sheila Francisco as Bloody Mary. She gets some of the best numbers and really shows how they should be sung.
Against an effective set, the story of the principals’ blossoming affair unfolds and – in the catch-throat way intended by the show’s creators – is interrupted when Emile goes off to perform heroics for the Yanks.
It’s great drama but what you remember about this show is the even greater music, rolling out like the ocean recalled in the title.