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“Surely this isn’t opera,” I heard one lady mutter as we took our seats at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday night for the opening of South Pacific. Indeed quite a few in the audience seemed not entirely sure if they were going to enjoy the experience. By the end of the overture, however, Broadway had cast its familiar spell and there were few who doubted that we were in for the promised "enchanted evening".
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 musical about love and war in the South Pacific is probably their best work; without doubt it is one of the finest musicals ever written. A combination of meaningful storyline, smart lyrics and an outpouring of memorable melodies ensure its place in the pantheon of the greats. This multiple Tony Award-winning Lincoln Center production, here with an all-Australian cast, rises to the challenge. Add to that a stunning design and some superlative performances and you have one of the most thrilling theatrical nights in musical memory. Many column inches have been expended on whether Opera Australia should be doing commercial musicals. On this showing, I’d say the answer is a resounding "Yes!"
Director Bartlett Sher fully understands the multiple strands that Hammerstein brings into play. South Pacific is a love story in time of war but it also tackles big issues like class, racism, and colonialism along the way. Sher’s special trick is to bring each of these into focus in turn. without any of them ever feeling forced or extraneous. In this essentially traditional staging, the sexual tension between men and women working side by side in a dangerous situation is palpable, with violence only one step away. The frequent naivety of westerners abroad, the confronting of prejudice, the feeling of sexual liberation on encountering an unfamiliar culture – all are given due weight. Many of these are brought out in the tense relationship between Nellie Forbush, the "hick" from Littlerock, and Lieutenant Cable, the graduate from Princeton – just one of many revelations in this searching production.
Christopher Gattelli’s staging of the musical numbers is also terrific, always stemming from character and dramatic situation and never falling back on dance for dancing’s sake. The fit for purpose men’s chorus and their high voltage moves in There Is Nothing Like A Dame is knockout. As befits a Broadway show, Michael Yeargan’s design looks a million dollars, perfectly capturing the tropical sense of space, light and place; the flawlessly choreographed changes revealing a succession of memorable locations.
As Ensign Nellie Forbush, Lisa McCune is every inch the star of the show. Her portrayal of this inspiringly positive yet vulnerable woman is pitch perfect. Her nervous energy and fine comic acting never obscures her humanity and has us rooting for her from the off. The moment when she is unable to accept her French plantation owner’s mixed-race children is a blow not just to her would-be lover, but to us all. Vocally she is also top-dollar, blending head and chest impeccably to create a rich emotional palette.
Her romantic partner is Teddy Tahu Rhodes, an opera singer cast very much in the tradition of Ezio Pinza, the original Emile De Becque. As an actor, Rhodes puts in an appealing performance of great warmth. His portrayal of father, lover and man of action is always engaging (even if never quite convincing us that he has actually read Proust). It is a tribute to his stage charisma that his rather wandering French accent doesn’t seem to matter that much. Vocally he is in fine form, shading the top of his substantial voice when required and bringing the house down with his big numbers.
In the role of Bloody Mary, the magnetic Kate Ceberano is a revelation, giving us a harder but more nuanced character than is sometimes the case. Hers is a poor, indigenous woman in desperate straits, living on her wits. We respect her as a survivor but are never allowed to laugh at her. Bali Hai is beautifully sung but here it isn’t just a dream of a romantic island; it is made to feel a sinister and dangerous place where lives can change for better or for worse. During Happy Talk, as she forces her daughter to play up to the American Lieutenant, himself in a state of malarial delirium, the contemporary parallel of sexual trafficking is impossible to avoid. "You’ve got to have a dream," she sings, but the dream is clearly all hers.
Daniel Koek manages the tricky role of the ambivalent Lieutenant Cable with considerable aplomb. His sensitive portrayal reveals many sides to this multifaceted character while his smooth tenor voice is tailor-made for Younger Than Springtime. In Koek and Bartlett Sher’s hands, the bitter rant of the anti-racist You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught becomes the heart of the show, not an awkward add-on.
Eddie Perfect was an interesting Luther Billis, the fixer-cum-conman from the ranks. He plays the aggression of the working class underdog rather than the lovable dope with the hots for Nellie. If he doesn’t ultimately break our hearts, he offers an intriguing alternative take.
The supporting roles are uniformly excellent. John O’May’s soft-hearted bulldog of a Captain is beautifully observed while John Xintavelonis and Rowan Witt put in a spot on comic double act as Billis’ sidekicks.
The sound design is excellent, allowing the Australian Opera and Ballet orchestra under Andrew Greene to project the full sweep of Rodgers’ romantic score in Robert Russell Bennett’s masterful original orchestrations.
As the Americans put the screws on De Becque to help them against the Japanese, the Frenchman snaps back: "I know what you are against. What are you for?" At the end of a memorable night it is clear that Bartlett Sher knows exactly what South Pacific is for: tolerance, understanding and the human spirit.