04
Jan
13

South Pacific

South Pacific

 

South Pacific

Opera Australia and John Frost

QPAC Lyric Theatre

27th December – 27th January 2013

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

This year marks the 60th Anniversary of South Pacific in Australia.

 

This is the iconic album cover image I grew up with.

This record (Google it, kids; vinyl record) became scratched beyond repair before it was discarded (if it was discarded at all. I have a sneaking suspicion that I saw it recently, stashed upstairs, amongst Mum and Dad’s fave records of all time!). I remember singing the songs for years, skipping and kicking around the lounge room, washing that man right outta’ my hair and sending him on his way!

South Pacific Album Cover

First performed on Broadway in 1949, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific made a bold statement in post-war America about tolerance and acceptance. Only four years on from World War II, South Pacific gave us inter-racial relationships, and what it takes to overcome our own prejudices.

 

Opera Australia and John Frost’s co-production, from the original Lincoln Center Theater production, directed by Bartlett Sher, is superb. The Brisbane cast is impressive and they have the privilege of working in Catherine Zuber’s authentic costumes (we get just a glimpse of several gorgeous evening gowns), within a simple, elegant set.

 

Whether or not you’re a fan of Rodgers & Hammerstein, there is a lot to love about this show. The first thing is Teddy Tahu Rhodes, who is sublime as the Frenchman, Emile De Becque. Honestly. What is there NOT to love about this guy? His heartfelt delivery of Some Enchanted Evening (What’s this? Another reprise? Alright!), and This Nearly Was Mine are heart-melting, heart-breaking perfection. Already well respected in the international opera world, South Pacific is Rhodes’ first musical and it’s won him a host of new, devoted (swooning) fans. I’m sure I was not the only one on opening night left quite breathless by Rhodes’ enigmatic performance.

 

Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Image by Kurt Sneddon.

 

Well-matched and perfectly cast as Ensign Nellie Forbush is multiple award-winner and golden girl of the stage and small screen, Lisa McCune. I know! Remember when we were all slightly suspicious of McCune? That transition from Australian TV Drama to the stage can be a killer. But remember back even further? That’s right. When she was just 15, McCune was Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, in Wanneroo, Western Australia. Since then, McCune has gone from strength to strength and in this role she excels, coming full circle as a singer, despite a voice that is sweeter than you might expect to hear, traditionally, in this role. But you can’t fake Nellie Forbush. It’s all or nothing and McCune gives it her all. I love her naivety and her boldness, perfectly juxtaposed to reveal a woman who can clearly see that her ingrained prejudice will leave her unstuck in the end but not – at first – how she can change her perspective. Her prejudice and confusion come as a shock, both to her and to us, but we have to remember where we are…and where Nellie comes from. You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught

 

Lisa McCune. Image by Kurt Sneddon.

 

In lesser productions of South Pacific, Lieutenant Joe Cable is so often the weak link but thanks to the incredible talent and sensitivity of stunning Tenor, Daniel Koek, combined with Sher’s insightful direction, he is so likeable, and it is a truly awful moment to hear of his demise. In fact, he reminds me of Miss Saigon’s Chris but he’s not such a sap. Sher’s multi-award-winning direction of this production has ensured we see full characterisations and rich, real relationships (though the rumours of a romance between McCune and Rhodes were quashed on Monday at the media launch, so perhaps not as real as we’d like to imagine, which only goes to show that the acting must be A1!). Suffice to say, there is no nuance missed, such is the attention to detail.

 

Daniel Koek as Lieutenant Cable. Image by Jeff-Busby.

 

Gyton Grantley offers plenty of giggles as go-to Seabee, Luther Billis, and balances his comedic antics with tenderness towards Nellie that doesn’t go unnoticed. Christine Anu somehow manages to seduce more than repel, with her betel nut stained teeth and a haunting rendition of Bali Ha’i. Celina Yuen, as Liat, is fragile and beautiful, and the children are suitably spirited. On opening night they were Joy Ehue (Ngana) and Levi Ehue (Jerome). I’d love to get back before the season closes to see our own Louisa Finau; Sunshine Coast based and a newcomer to the professional stage. The ensemble is uniformly excellent; they look good and their sound is rich and full.

 

Christine Anu & Gyton Grantley. Image by Kurt Sneddon.

 

The inspiration for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s love story, James A Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific, is rich in detail and this design team brings both Michener’s prose and the legendary island, Bali Ha’I, out of the mist and into reality with a deceptively simple set comprising a painted backdrop, beautifully lit, narrowly avoiding looking like a set for The Bold and The Beautiful (Sets by Michael Yeargan & Lighting by Donald Holder). Once we accept that it’s not a moving, multi-media image, it becomes all the more real. The moment of acceptance creeps up on us; it’s similar to that point where, as an adult watching Peter Pan, we just HAVE to clap and chime in with, “I DO believe in fairies!” Timber plantation blinds help to set each scene, delineating different spaces for the islands, and the company street, the Commander’s Office and De Beque’s plantation home, and seamless transitions make it easy to suspend disbelief. The magic of this South Pacific is not only in the performances on stage, but also, in the unseen performances of the crew, and in the inspired direction of Sher, whose vision is exquisitely shared.

 

With Australian Musical Director, Andrew Greene, at the helm, the orchestra sounds superb – the overture swells just as it should, igniting our love of old-school live theatre and the Great American Musical of the mid-20th century – and the well-loved songs tumble forth like a waterfall’s glistening gifts; still enticing audience members to sing along softly under their breath, 60 years on.

 

South Pacific is a rare pearl. A poignant, still relevant message and absolutely superb performances make this the perfect show for the start of a magical year of musical theatre.

 

Lisa McCune & Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Image by Jeff Busby.

 

 

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