Phil tried to break the news to Andrew as gently as possible. But there was no other way but to simply blurt it out.
“It’s 3 hours long. Act 1 is 1 hour 37 minutes”.
The corners of Andrew’s mouth turned due south as his eyebrows shot off in entirely the opposite direction; you’d think he’d just heard that Carol Channing had announced her retirement.
The problem with Rodgers and Hammerstein is they just didn’t know when to stop. Many musicals are lucky to produce any, let alone one or two memorable numbers. They should heed South Pacific and weep: it has over a dozen of them plus the reprises.
The opening scene dispenses three well-known songs, scene 2 polishes off three more, but as R&H have the luxury of a seemingly bottomless well of catchy melodies they can afford to.
Between these songs it has to squeeze in stories gleaned by Joshua Logan and Hammerstein from James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize – winning book Tales of the South Pacific set during World War II: US nurse Nellie (Samantha Womack) is a full-time cockeyed optimist and part-time racist who falls in love with a rich plantation owner (though she’s not overly bothered that “he’s a cultured French man”). But it turns out that
Anton Emile De Becque (Matthew Cammelle) comes with two mixed-race children from his marriage to a now dead Polynesian woman. On top of this there are subplots galore about the antics of soldiers stationed in the South Pacific, another love affair scuppered by carefully taught racism, a derring-do military mission and a dodgy local woman who peddles grass skirts and shrunken heads.
Had it been possible to shrink Andrew’s head and freeze his expression on hearing the running time Phil would have done so and offered it to Bloody Mary (Loretta Ables Sayre) for “hundred dollar” (ONO). But unexpectedly, by the time those first 97 minutes had passed Andrew was positively beaming.
Actually, the signs were good from the outset when the deliciously large orchestra struck up the overture and reminded the Whingers of the ridiculously sumptuous slew of standards to come. Had the audience actually shut up rather than talking animatedly over it it would have sounded even better.
Expectations were dashed somewhat when the front cloth rose to reveal De Becque’s rather shabily realised plantation home. SP is a touring production which came here from an acclaimed run at the Lincoln Center via the Barbican (director Bartlett Sher won the Tony Award for it) but we must presume it didn’t look quite this low rent on The Broadway.
But it didn’t really matter. The songs and the music and the performances turned out to be more than enchanting. The extravagance here is in the orchestra and the casting rather than on the sets or disappointingly paltry amounts of shampoo Nellie applies as she washes that man right outa her hair.
Womack, Cammelle and Daniel Koek (as Lt Cable) deliver the goods in both performances and vocals and Ables Sayre is terrific, both sinister and funny as Bloody Mary (and now the only one left from the New York cast having played it there for two and a half years).
The plot with its liberal themes (which must have been way ahead of its day for a musical in 1949) proves engaging and we always feel indulged when heads are topped off by wig virtuoso Richard Mawbey’s efforts. No wonder Nellie was so careful with her hair-washing.
So not a long haul after all. The Whingers emerged feeling that their three hours had been well spent and hummed “Dites-Moi” all the way home. Even we asked ourselves “pourquoi?” on that one.