Romance in the wartime Pacific came to life in a production of the award-winning musical South Pacific that zipped along with well-applauded catchy songs, plenty of humour and lively acting.
There were highs and lows, and as well as some voices being a privilege to hear, others were reminiscent of a school play; but that’s what makes an amateur production fun. At times you will have your hand over your mouth, at others you’ll be delighting in an undiscovered gem.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical which won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950, tells the romantic story of two couples drawn together across different cultures – US Nurse Nellie Forbush and plantation owner Emile de Becque, and marine Joe Cable who falls in love with young native girl Liat. It is being performed at Cambridge Arts Theatre from 26-30 November by Cambridge Operatic Society who last year took to the stage with a popular production of Oliver! This year they have swapped Dickensian London for a tropical island during World War II.
Emma Vieceli is a real Nellie Forbush with a mellifluous voice, a lovely tone and very strong acting ability. She inhabited the role and I believed I was in fact seeing the ‘little girl from Little Rock’. Playing opposite her, David Gower is a moving and accomplished Emile de Becque, a Frenchman any girl would fall for. It was a masterful performance and their solos and duets were a highlight of the show.
Equally, Trenetta Jones is a good, earthy, Bloody Mary. She is a real Bali Ha’i and brought the world of the Pacific to the stage, making me see the island. The singing of the two children who opened and closed the show, Lily Ong and Arun Austin, is delightful and the orchestra superb; the overture a real treat with pure tingle factor that carried on right to the finale. It was certainly uplifting.
The musical features popular songs, including ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, ‘There is Nothing Like a Dame’, ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa my Hair’, and ‘Happy Talk’. However, during this production the singing, acting and dancing vary in quality. That said, even among professionals few people nowadays can do all three (apart from English Touring Opera). In general, the days of Morecambe and Wise are gone (they will come back, just look at the enthusiasm for Strictly) but strangely, though movement and voice are everything to an actor, few today have been trained to sing and dance. So you can’t expect amateurs to have been carefully taught.
That said it is a tight, ensemble piece and not a moment in this show is dull. It lives. It is Happy Talk.
For those who love amateur shows, and there was an enthusiastic audience on the opening night, applauding almost every number, it was all there: some fine performances, some acting so terrible it should really only be between consenting adults, a superb orchestra, two cute children and a great set.
There are some good voices, but one of the leads was singing flat – and that’s on the level. But the overture is magnificent and the band carries the show throughout, because working musicians are never amateurs. They are people who have to earn a living doing something else. Even Mozart had to teach.
That said, there are some stars on the stage. Emma Vieceli’s performance as Nellie Forbush is by itself worth seeing the show for. Her voice is full of music and her performance made you see the little girl from Little Rock. She made the part her own. Similarly, David Gower’s Frenchman Emile de Becque was moving and convincing and their solos and duets meant something.
Trenetta Jones is a powerful, operatic Bloody Mary, who conjured up the world of Bali Ha’i. She was utterly believable, as the South Pacific’s answer to Mrs Bennet.
Plaudits also to Richard Sockett as Captain George Brackett, whose performance had authority and to the two children who opened and closed the show, Lily Ong and Arun Austin.
The difficulty with this beautifully written musical is that the whole cast needs to be a triple threat to carry it off. You forget when you see professional shows all year that acting isn’t something everyone can do. It’s interesting to see what happens when the uninitiated walk onto a stage.
All that said, the show is fast-paced and fun. The cast has plenty of verve. At times, it is the vision of a cockeyed optimist but at others an enchanted evening
As the lush, twenty-eight-piece orchestra strikes up – the overture is a delicious medley of all those familiar melodies – and the steeply raked stage revealed, back-lit in warm pinks and yellows behind a tropical roof, you know you have escaped to a 1940s pacific island whereon the love story of Emile and Nellie is to unfold. And a jolly good evening of high-class escapism it is too.
Emma Vieceli is sweet-voiced, clear and fresh as Nellie, every inch an actor moving from love to anguish to split loyalties and great fun in the second act’s Thanksgiving Follies. It’s a thoroughly professional performance in which she is well matched by David Gower as her French boyfriend. Gower, who sings impeccably well and has quite a vocal range, conveys just the right blend of integrity, sincerity and passion because, inevitably, the course of true love does not run smooth – or at least not for the first two hours and fifteen minutes.
There is plenty of other noteworthy acting in this show. Gavin Jarvis gives us a thoughtful, sensitive Lt Joseph Cable, master of the pregnant glance, sometimes sardonic and sometimes deeply distressed. Timothy Winn is entertaining as Seabee Luther Billis, expertly squeezing every inch of comedy out of the quasi-drag scene in the Follies, for example. Richard Sockett creates a suitably forceful, irascible Captain George Brackett, skilfully never letting us forget there is a softer human being inside. And Trenetta Jones, character actor to her finger tips, shrieks and schemes to excellent effect as Bloody Mary. In most cases the American accents are a bit patchy but, since these people haven’t had the services of a professional dialect coach they haven’t done too badly, and it doesn’t affect the overall impact.
The acting in the chorus is another strength and a sign that the show has been carefully directed (by Chris Cuming), although arguably one or two potential laughs are missed and a show such as this needs comedy for balance along with the sadness and anxiety. Each and every chorus member is individually characterised and contributes specifically to the whole. And I liked the use of different parts of the large playing area for different scenes against a set made mostly of flats to reduce the size of the stage as necessary. Emma Olley’s delightful, imaginative choreography ensures some visually successful dance numbers too.
But in many ways the real star of this enjoyable show is Richard Rodgers’s fabulous music. Every number is a showstopper and it’s a joy to hear it done such justice to under Lucas Elkin’s baton as MD. And this is where non-professional theatre scores. You’d be very unlikely to hear an orchestra so large, even in the West End because few producers would pay for it. But in amateur theatre these astonishingly good peripatetic local musicians, steeped in enthusiasm for what they’re doing, will turn out for ‘beer money’ and everyone gains.
Cambridge Amateur Operatic Society’s annual show at the Cambridge Arts Theatre is always something to look forward to and this year was no exception with Rogers and Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC.
Unfortunately for me circumstances had prevented my attending earlier in the week and by the time I saw the show on the Saturday evening a programme was not available: therefore, I am afraid this review may be short on information.
Thankfully my misgivings following the loud six-minute overture by the large orchestra were unfounded as, under the baton of Lucas Elkin, they were absolutely excellent.There was much to be impressed by in this show. The steeply raked stage used to great effect throughout was backlit beautifully as the sun rose on this 1940s pacific island during the overture.
The male ensemble had great attack from their first appearance matched well by the ladies ensemble who were full of verve and energy. I loved all the little characterisations and mini-scenes whilst the main action ensued. All this added strength to the production. There is not much dancing in this show but what there was had been well choreographed by Emma Olley
Performances were all of a high standard, particularly those of Emma Vieceli as Nellie and David Gower as Emile whose love story the show is based on. Both performers could grace a professional stage with no problem. Beautiful voices and great acting.
There were other excellent performances in this show too. I particularly liked Chas Barclay’s Cmdr William Harbison and Richard Sockett’s Captain Brackett. As the nevermiss-a- trick Bloody Mary, Trenetta Jones was in fine voice but I did have trouble understanding much of her dialogue. The same could also be said of Timothy Winn in the often coveted role of Luther Billis. His acting was good and he made the most of his drag act scene but projection was a problem – from my point of view anyway. I have long thought the role of Lt Cable here played Gavin Jarvis a difficult one. There is not much for an actor to get hold of in the sub-plot of his attachment to Liat (Achylla Jones) but he did well, managing to create empathy with his young lover.
This show was extremely well directed by Chris Cuming. Excellent and imaginative use was made of the stage and the issues of America’s involvement in the war in the South Pacific and racial prejudice, still prevalent in the American psyche of the time, were realistically but sensitively depicted.
This famous show, full of well-known songs, has long been a favourite of amateur musical groups and it is no wonder, but I doubt you will see a better version of it than CaOS’s 2013 offering.