Brimming with topical relevance and romantic poignancy, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s dramatic masterpiece South Pacific is back on stage in Australia, in a celebrated and highly awarded staging.
The last of the five jewels in the Rodgers and Hammerstein crown to be revived on Broadway, the choice of operatic director Bartlett Sher and his collaborators was an inspired one. Fresh from the triumph of 2004’s The Light in the Piazza, written, incidentally, by Richard Rodgers’ grandson Adam Guettel, Sher again assembled Music Supervisor Ted Sperling, Set Designer Michael Yeargan, and Costume Designer Catherine Zuber to create a timely, cinematic, and altogether gorgeous production of the classic show. Sher, Yeargan and Zuber were among the eight 2008 Tony winners for the show.
Sher’s direction brings the colourful characters to vivid life, handling sensitive issues of prejudice, loneliness and death with sensitivity. Christopher Gattelli’s lively musical staging highlights the performers’ strengths and flows as naturally from the music and setting as the songs do from the dialogue.
Yeargan’s set makes the stage of the Opera House look bigger than ever, with the sea and sand setting framed a proscenium arch, legs and backdrops made of curtains of bamboo rods. The simplicity of the multi-purpose bamboo backdrops is offset somewhat some impressive set pieces for the marines and nurses’ makeshift facilities. The ocean backdrop is beautiful, especially as lit by Donald Holder.
Zuber draws from a delectable palette of muted jewel tones for the civilian attire of the nurses and marines. Highlights include the elegant evening gowns for the party at Emil’s and the witty outfits for the improvised Thanksgiving Follies.
Andrew Greene conducts a sumptuous 33 piece orchestra, shown off by a cleverly designed retracting floor.
New Zealand barihunk Teddy Tahu Rhodes is in his element as suave French plantation owner Emile De Becque. Singers can train and rehearse to polish their art but Rhodes has a voice that can only be described as a gift. His bass notes vibrate as if his whole 6’5″ body is a musical instrument. Both “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” were received with cheers more often heard at a stadium than an opera house. Audiences who are aware of Rhodes but have not actually experienced him singing live are in for an absolute treat, with his fan base sure to explode as he tours the country in this dream role.
Ageless Lisa McCune enchants as plucky heroine Ensign Nellie Forbush. McCune adopts a delicious period tone for her vocals, which adds enormously to the authentic retro feel of the show and makes songs such as “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of my Hair” and “I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy” a delight. Impossibly petite, McCune is a living doll, effortlessly portraying Nellie’s heart and drive, and winning the audience’s affection with ease. Seeing the war through the lens of Nellie’s rose coloured glasses, a measure of the audience’s identification with Nellie was the audible gasps that greeted her involuntary racist reaction to Emile’s island past.
While the names Eddie Perfect and Kate Ceberano may seem to be there for mainstream marquee appeal, both prove to be inspired casting choices. Worshipped as Mary in the iconic 1990s arena staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, it is a crime that Ceberano has not spent more time on the music theatre stage. To see the über-chic pop diva as a dumpy, lumbering Tonkinese woman is quite amazing. Revealing the diamond heart beneath the harried, self-serving desperation of a wartime profiteer, Ceberano has the audience in her palm from her first entrance. And her singing is superb.
Perfect has crafted an energetic, physical characterisation that puts a unique spin on Luther Billis. In constant motion, his rasping voice and jerky ticks and mannerisms have Billis as a borderline Tourette’s type. With the bravery and selflessness beneath Billis’ joie de vivre eventually revealed, the final image of him in full uniform for war is indeed a sobering one.
Daniel Koek is suitably handsome, if not entirely boyish, as Lieutenant Joseph Cable, and has a fine tenor voice. The role is enhanced in this production with an extra song in act one, “My Girl Back Home,” which more significantly bonds Cable, as a fellow fish out of water, with Nellie.
Sterling support is given by music theatre stalwarts John O’May as Captain Brackett, better known as Old Ironbelly, and Jeremy Stanford as Commander Harbison. Indeed, despite the fact that the show is produced by Opera Australia, the company is fully populated by the cream of musical theatre talent, boasting prized players such as Natalie Alexopoulos, Andrew Broadbent, Erin James, Michael Lindner and Tod Strike. Ensemble singing is exceptionally strong, and their dancing is just as entertaining, a highlight being terrific tapping in act two’s “Thanksgiving Follies” opener.
While South Pacific, at around 60 years of age, can no longer be seen as ground breaking, this blue chip production is a tremendous achievement that is not to be missed by fans of musical theatre.
Photos: Jeff Busby
This review was published on Theatre People on 12 August 2012.