South Pacific opened on Broadway in 1949 and has been running somewhere round the world ever since. Now it pops up in E. Oxford courtesy of RicNic Oxford at The Pegasus Theatre, in a long (2 hrs 45 mins inc. interval) and complex school/college student show. Director/choreographer Rhiannon Baker has taken on a mammoth task. I take my hat off to her ambition and talent. To my mind the less than wholly compelling storyline (though there’s genuine emotion conjured up by the end) is something of a vehicle for the glorious score of classic numbers – when you have 'Younger Than Springtime', 'I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair', 'Happy Talk' and 'There is Nothin’ Like a Dame', you’re onto a winner. Add in the poignant, soaring love song 'Some Enchanted Evening' and you’re bowled over. The 19-strong orchestra with a wonderful harpist in Erin Lawson-Smith is strongly led by young conductor Ed Liebrecht who gives out real energy to his players.The already restricted stage space at The Pegasus is a choreographer’s headache; when you’re further hemmed in by a tropical shrubbery and picket fence keeping the orchestra out (or the actors in), headache turns to migraine. Fortunately the storyline calls for little dancing, though what there is is nicely done.
Female lead Ellen Garbutt’s singing voice is delightfully strong and tuneful. When she trilled “I’m in love with a wonderful guy” her face lit up like the noonday sun, and I really believed it. Where the two leads fall a bit short at present - and I would expect this to improve as the production matures - is in snappy dialogue and movement, especially in the sluggish opening scenes; these are anyway the weakest part of South Pacific. Mr Gold does manfully with his solos, though always remaining a little too downbeat; and what a canny little French accent – tout à fait impeccable, mon ami!Adela Rajnovic is a corpulent, rough-and-ready Bloody Mary, a wheeler-dealer islander revelling in flogging grass skirts and shrunken human heads. Very good, though not always quite coping with having to project her voice beyond the orchestra. The actors in the support roles have in common that they tend to come on the more strongly as the show proceeds. The chorus of islanders/marines is lively. But I’ve left the icing on the cake till last; Harry Pudwell’s skiving, conniving Marine Billis is a tour de force. He dominates the stage with his energy, skilful reactions and free movement. This is not acting derived from direction or textbook but from natural ability, and Mr Pudwell puts in here one of the best three or four student performances I’ve seen in 10 years’ reviewing. Terrific!
The test I apply to these student productions is: would I want to go were I not a parent/relative/friend of cast or crew? Here: absolutely!