Fresh from its record-breaking Sydney season, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific has landed in Melbourne in glorious shape. Tight, humorous, energetic and rapturously melodious, this artistic triumph is brimming with life, romance and eternal relevance.
Sitting grandly in the Princess Theatre as if it were designed exclusively for that space, Michael Yeargan’s design captures a sweeping grandeur that effortlessly expands the possibilities of the regular pro arch stage. The sun drenched tropical tones and sea blues in Catherine Zuber’s costume palette beautifully complement the lush picture whilst also cleverly drawing the eye to character and action.
Repeat viewing of the wartime romance unveils a range of subtle touches that support the more overt elements of racism in the storyline. Black marines remain segregated from the white soldiers, and also perform the more menial and backbreaking labour in the camp. Judgments are made based on sex, age, family background, education, rank and the list goes on. The examination of our inbuilt tendency to categorise and discriminate adds a fascinating extra layer to the equally pertinent themes of camaraderie and bravery in the face of war and adversity.
Bartlett Sher’s expert direction keeps the action swift and the storytelling clear. With so many male characters, there is the danger of them blending in together, but each one here has a distinct and recognisable persona. A standout in this regard is John Xintavelonis, embodying the old adage that there are no small roles with his quirky and captivating turn as Stewpot. The whole ensemble, in fact, has the luxury of developing characters that carry through the show and add to the life of the story.
A moment of pure music theatre magic comes at the top of the second act as performers first warm up and improvise some dance steps for the Thanksgiving Follies, then take to the stage to commence the festivities. This wordless sequence contains as much storytelling, character connection and humour as pages and pages of dialogue and clearly shows Christopher Gattelli’s consummate skill with musical staging.
Whilst the orchestra has unfortunately been reduced by about a quarter from the Sydney season, the size is still relatively generous by music theatre standards and the music is certainly in expert control under the highly disciplined baton of Vanessa Scammell.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes has relaxed into the boots of displaced French plantation owner Emile de Becque. His sonorous bass is to die for, and “This Nearly Was Mine” remains an absolute standout. Lisa McCune’s plucky Nellie Forbush is the emotional heart of the show. McCune demonstrates her full strength as a leading lady of music theatre, and she and Rhodes enjoy palpable chemistry as a couple.
Kate Ceberano is nothing short of sensational as Bloody Mary, giving herself over completely to the character. If Melbourne does not already love Ceberano enough, they will adore her even more after this endearing, engaging performance.
Eddie Perfect’s gruff character voice as Luther Billis may not allow much light and shade in expression but he manages to capture our hearts as the rascal with a heart of gold. Daniel Koek contributes some beautiful singing as Lt. Joseph Cable. John O’May has the incredible ability to simultaneously breathe exasperation, compassion, authority and dignity into every line as Captain Brackett.
It would have been wonderful for this year’s new, original music theatre premieres to be hits. In the meantime, however, audiences and performers alike can enjoy this classic production, which is really not to be missed.
Footnote: what a classy and selfless act for the cast to share their opening night curtain calls with cast members from the Australian premiere of South Pacific, which opened a whopping 60 years ago. This emotional tribute was a moving way to end the evening.
Photos: Jeff Busby
This review published on Theatre People 16 September 2012