Musical: A dose of the winter blues

SOUTH PACIFIC SHEFFIELD CRUCIBLE
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The Independent Culture
ON THE first pre-Broadway tour of South Pacific, Richard Rodgers reputedly broke up one of those smoke-filled late-night production meetings where people agonise over what to adjust and fix. "Fellas," he announced, "this show is perfect. Let's go to bed." And now, nearly 50 years later, there are few who would want to dispute such a claim. It's a struggle to remind yourself of this, though, when confronted with a revival as ropy as that directed by Deborah Paige at the Sheffield Crucible.

The poster invites you to "banish all your winter blues" with this masterly musical love story of an ageing cultured expatriate Frenchman and an unsophisticated young nurse from Arkansas who are thrown together during the war in the Pacific and almost come to grief over the subject of race. Criss-crossed with duckboards, the Crucible's thrust stage certainly pushes the sun-kissed sea and sand into the audience's midst, with the undistinguished band visible at the back. Introducing choreography to a show that originally was notable for dispensing with it, Peter Darling gives the engaging line- up of sexually frustrated GIs a horny hornpipe and, as "There is Nothing Like a Dame" reaches its climax, a sort of Half-Monty flourish.

But there was so much coughing and spluttering in the theatre that you didn't know whether you were in an auditorium or a sanatorium. Some of this local croakiness seems to have infected the delectable Janie Dee, whose lanky, impish Nellie was in sadly enfeebled voice. When she failed to put full-throated rapture into the declaration "I'm in love with a wonderful guy", you tended to sympathise because Mark Adams's hectoringly sung Emile has none of the romantic reserve and mystery necessary for this role.

Intermittently entertaining, the production is too often misjudged. I have always been a fervent supporter of colour-blind casting. But drama which turns on the question of colour and race constitutes an exception. Given that Nellie's distaste for the idea that Emile is the widower of a Polynesian woman is a major stumbling-block in their romance, it makes little sense to cast two children who look as if they are of clearly different races as the offspring of that union. And while the black actor Cornell John is extremely winning as Luther Billis, the unit's comically unsuccessful would-be war profiteer, colour-blind casting again raises problems. When he and Nellie perform "Honeybun" at the Thanksgiving Follies - she as a male sailor and Luther as a dusky native maiden with coconuts for breasts - the fact that the number is a raucous travesty of another racially sensitive relationship in the show loses its sharpness if Luther is already a non-white.

Some enchanted evening? No, some way short of that.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper

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