Ropy revival's unenchanting evening

First Night: South Pacific; Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
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The Independent Online
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. "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, however, when confronted with a revival as ropy as that directed by Deborah Paige at the Sheffield Crucible.

It did seem promising enough - 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 nurse from Arkansas who are thrown together during the war in the Pacific and almost come to grief over the subject of race.

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 thought of half-monty flourish.

But there was so much coughing 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. Mind you, when she failed to put rapture into the declaration "I'm in love with a wonderful guy", you tended to sympathise because Mark Adams' 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 is a major stumbling block in their romance, it makes little sense to cast two children who look to be of clearly different races as the offspring of that union.

And while the black actor Cornell John is extremely winning as Luther Billis, the comically unsuccessful would-be war profiteer, colour-blind casting again raises problems.

When he and Nellie perform "Honeybun" at the Thanksgiving Follies (he as a dusky native maiden with coconuts for breasts, she as a male sailor ) the number - a raucous travesty of another racially sensitive relationship - loses all of its sharpness because he is already a non-white.

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

Paul Taylor