SOUTH PACIFIC, The Lincoln Centre production presented by Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House, 11 August-9 September 2012; then Melbourne. Photos by Jeff Busby: Lisa McCune and company; McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Review by BRYCE HALLETT
FROM the opening bars of Rodgers and Hammerstein's sumptuous score combined with the moody elegance of Michael Yeargan's masterful set design, South Pacific works its not inconsiderable charms. In no time at all the audience is drawn into the musical's tuneful rhythms and open-hearted embrace. The immediacy and intimacy of the opening terrace scene, beautifully lit by Donald Holder, is executed with economy, grace and wit. Suddenly a work written in 1949 and set in the South Pacific during World War II not only assumes an easy familiarity but a veracity seldom witnessed on the musical theatre stage.
The vigour, ambiguity and tenderness of the sequence firmly establishes the playful, yearning tone of director Bartlett Sher's magnificent production. In almost every sense the deftness of the staging matches the musical's pithy and effective characterisation, and fluent score. It also allows room for the imagination and, of course, for the suspension of disbelief.
Aside from the intensity and power of Teddy Tahu Rhodes's heart-stopping bass-baritone, South Pacific is at its most operatic in its use of time and space. When Lisa McCune's delightful Nellie Forbush sings ''A Cockeyed Optimist" there's no doubting her sincerity, as hollow as it may seem early on in her journey to self-awareness. But it is in the few minutes of "Twin Soliloquies" that the dissimilar lives of Emile De Becque (Tahu Rhodes) and Nellie are vividly revealed; their cultural differences and contrasting backgrounds tellingly compressed. The song is soon followed by ''Some Enchanted Evening", a tune of such moment and heart, it's as though time has stood still to let destiny, mystery and desire to take fanciful flight...
''...Some enchanted evening
Someone may be laughin',
You may hear her laughin'
Across a crowded room
And night after night,
As strange as it seems
The sound of her laughter
Will sing in your dreams.
Who can explain it?
Who can tell you why?
Fools give you reasons,
Wise men never try...''
The chemistry between McCune and Rhodes is palpable and generates the essential contradictory heat of attraction and repulsion. Sher's lyrical and seamless staging is faithful to the book but not in a reverential, didactic or starched way. It is as vital as it is vintage. This is due in large measure to the astute casting and to the avoidance of sentimentality in favour of credible characters, irrespective of how flimsily some of them are drawn.
South Pacific's book, written by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, was inspired by James A Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. Set during World War II on two Pacific islands, where American sailors were stationed, it is by far the most topical work crafted by the songwriting duo in its exploration of a war that had ended only a few years earlier. The show charts two love stories, both between people of different cultures, and makes a strong, heartfelt plea for racial tolerance, something that Rodgers and Hammerstein never resiled from despite the politics and pressures of the day. The song "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" was daring for its time and speaks volumes today.
In his first musical Tahu Rhodes is outstanding as the French plantation owner who seeks to escape the shackles of his past and assert his fearless brand of independence. Best known for a solid performance in Jake Heggie's opera Dead Man Walking and for his work with Opera Australia, Tahu Rhodes brings a sense of authority and sincerity to the role. When he sings "Some Enchanted Evening'' it's more forceful than it probably needs to be but the effect is hugely romantic and urgent, and when he interprets "This Nearly Was Mine" it's doubtful that there would be a dry eye in the house.
The show's most challenging role is that of Ensign Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas. Her love for Emile is shattered when she discovers his previous relationship with a Polynesian women who bore him two children. The part was created by Mary Martin, playing opposite the opera singer Ezio Pinza. But McCune brings delicacy, warmth and assurance to the role, and makes wholly credible the heroine's conflicted emotions and the ultimate leap from ingrained caution to acceptance. When she delivers the penultimate reprise of "Some Enchanted Evening" a new world dawns amid the danger and uncertainty of war. South Pacific affirmed the postwar American dream of hope in adversity; of courage and resilience in times of peril and hardship.
When the character appears undaunted and at her most bubbly, as is the case for most of the first act, McCune is in her element. Her delivery of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa of My Hair" is liberating and fun, and builds into a show-stopping lather. But the musical's joyful highlights don't start or stop there. Three of the production's best assets are Kate Ceberano as Bloody Mary, Daniel Koek as Lieutenant Cable and Eddie Perfect as Luther Billis.
Ceberano is a revelation as the entrepreneurial islander and her renditions of "Bali Ha'í" and "Happy Talk" are sensual and seductive. Not once does she lose sight of Bloody Mary's calculating zeal and craft. So immersed in the character does she become that it's easy to forget that the usually sultry and soulful Ceberano is even on stage. Perfect is equally at home as the energetic and wily Billis. He relishes the moment when he leads the chorus of Seabees in "Nuthin' Like a Dame" and later in "Honey Bun" when he joins McCune and the ensemble on the stage-on-a-stage.
The Australian-born Koek invests Cable with a mixture of keen self-respect and a faltering sense of direction when coming to grips with exotic island life, the beautifully fragile Liat (Celina Yuen) and codes of behaviour far removed from his value system back home. Koek's secure and ringing tenor works wonders on the lyrical ''Younger Than Springtime''' - as much a crowd-pleaser as Freddy Eynsford-Hill bursting into ''On the Street Where You Live'' in My Fair Lady.
The cast is exemplary. John O'May and Jeremy Stanford contribute strong performance while the ensemble is a pure delight. Much of the magic-making comes from the brilliance of the score and the orchestra, led by conductor Andrew Greene and comprising 33 players from the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, delivers it with care and verve.
South Pacific remains a spirited, passionate and deeply moving work. The subtle and inventive touches by Sher and his collaborators have seen to that. The musical thoroughly deserves its place in Opera Australia's repertoire.