“When important things happen,” we’re told midway through the very long first act of Trevor Nunn’s new London revival of “South Pacific,” “one has a feeling about it.” My initial feeling about the Royal National Theater’s third and latest Rodgers and Hammerstein reclamation is that it doesn’t equal the company’s “Carousel” and “Oklahoma!” That’s to set, admittedly, a formidably high bar for an occasion whose importance (even, it has to be said, self-importance) is never in doubt: Nunn has done his homework, and buffs everywhere will thrill at, among other things, the chance to hear forgotten numbers like “Now Is the Time” and “My Girl Back Home” (both dropped prior to the 1949 Broadway preem), not to mention the presence via Matthew Bourne of the most celebrated choreographer this musical has yet enjoyed (the Joshua Logan-directed original didn’t even have one). The result is a serious and exhaustive — some will say exhausting — reassessment of a defining American musical that justifies its place in the National repertoire (where it will do exceedingly well) without making a case for the longer life that the same address’ previous R&H entries have done.
This “South Pacific” comes laden with good intentions and an almost belligerent sense of its own worthiness: “Colored!” exclaims Nellie in a first-act racial exclamation over Emile’s children that is new to the script, courtesy Nunn’s scrupulous refashioning of the original, rehearsal drafts included. But what one keeps yearning for — much as Philip Quast’s excitingly sung Emile de Becque yearns for Arkansas “hick” Nellie Forbush (Lauren Kennedy) — is that quality of rapture that the most earnest research cannot buy, the kind that leaves auds of whatever age feeling, well, younger than springtime.
The failure of the evening to provide much emotional lift, conversely, has its own aging effect, and not merely because the production runs 3¼ hours, roughly the same as Nunn’s superior National-spawned “My Fair Lady,” now in the West End. No amount of social contextualizing and thematic flag-waving counts for much without audience investment in a central couple capable of triumphing over emotional timidity (in Emile’s case) and inherited prejudice (in Nellie’s) in time for the hug-happy final tableau. Instead, we’re left with the fleshy Australian-born Quast physically and culturally cast against type as the “slim” (or so the program tells us) French plantation owner Emile, and yet singing up the sort of storm that — characteristically for this gifted performer — sends shivers down the spine. His opposite number, Kennedy, is a ceaselessly peppy American newcomer to the London stage who, I’m afraid, makes scant impression notwithstanding all her hard work.
Possessed of a rather metallic grin and a pushy, unyielding stage persona that seems a shade self-consciously “Broadway” for such a self-described small town “knucklehead” (on opening night, her comic lines drew noticeably few laughs), Kennedy simply can’t carry the burden of so big and busy a production: When she sings (in “Honey Bun”) of being “101 pounds of fun,” you may find yourself asking whether the intended jollity may have got thrown overboard somewhere en route to the Pacific. As for chemistry between the leads, forget it: Their greatest connection comes during a shared kiss at the curtain call.
It’s not immediately clear, admittedly, whether the principal lovers aren’t meant to take a back seat to the wartime populace at large in a reordered “South Pacific” that takes half an hour before Emile even appears. Instead of opening with “Dites-Moi,” the silvery strains of “Bali Ha’i” and an abbreviated overture give way to some place-setting newsreel footage — echoes, here, of Nunn’s “Sunset Boulevard” — followed by two company numbers back to back: “Bloody Mary” and “Nothing Like a Dame.” The drill work allows Bourne a lusty showcase, even if the macho banter of “Dame” is somewhat undercut by having a deep-voiced ensemble player sing his paean to the fairer sex while clinging to a phallic stump of palm.
The women later get equal time, Kennedy’s mechanically rendered “Gonna Wash That Man” backed by distaff dancers who constitute a towel-snapping chorus of the sort that hasn’t been seen in London since “The Witches of Eastwick” left town, and with it the song “Dirty Laundry.” Act two has its own grass-skirted burlesque in “Honey Bun” led by Nick Holder’s Luther Billis, the goodtime Seabee of the cumbersome stowaway subplot who looks as if he’d be quite at home in “Privates on Parade.”
Away from such comparatively innocent pleasures, Nunn points up the far-from-blameless naivete and prejudice that “South Pacific” is really about, with Nellie’s resistance to Emile’s half-Polynesian children echoed by the skepticism of the Princeton-educated Cable (Edward Baker-Duly, his nasality more or less scuppering all his numbers) toward the possibility of any life with the Tonkinese Liat (Elaine Tan). In interpretive terms, the show’s primary coup rests with the hefty (in every sense) Bloody Mary of Sheila Francisco, who positions the role well away from the roly-poly comic relief presented by Bertice Reading in this show’s last London revival in 1988.
There’s a revelatory urgency to the “Bali Ha’i” that this island mercenary sings early on to Cable, her second-act “Happy Talk” — never has that song seemed more ironically titled — subsequently delivered as an act of near-desperation, as if she knows that the doomed Cable represents her daughter’s best and last chance. (Also excellent: John Shrapnel as a definitively dry, straight-talking Brackett, the island’s commanding officer.)
These are all gifts available to a “South Pacific” that can afford to reconsider the material anew, away from the pressures of the commercial marketplace. Less rewarding is John Napier’s efficient if hardly inspired set — a revolving disc adorned with varying amounts of foliage, and even a jeep, as required — which in turn muffles the expert orchestral playing of William David Brohn’s robust additional orchestrations, the ample underscoring of the anthemic “Now Is the Time” included.
Is this, then, the time for “South Pacific”? Undoubtedly, so long as issues of race, caste and class — the last an initial barrier between the sophisticated Emile and the “corny” Nellie well before it gets preempted by qualms about ethnicity — continue to divide. (On a more specific note, a reference to military maneuvers from hill to hill calls to mind our own age of Afghanistan cave-hopping.) If only the textual resonances were mirrored in affective terms, the production might not only make us think but move us. As it is, one sits out this protracted “South Pacific” noting the points it so carefully makes and yet, like its lovesick hero, still dreaming of paradise.