BWW Reviews: A Rare and Beautiful SOUTH PACIFIC For Australia
There is a rare kind of production where each element is so in synch, so finely tuned that this particular production eclipses other casts, other interpretations, and goes on to be considered a defining moment in the history of that show, and indeed of musical theatre itself.
The current Australian production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic SOUTH PACIFIC is that rare and beautiful kind.
Acclaimed director Bartlett Sher has restaged his Tony Award winning Lincoln Center production for Opera Australia and the show retains all of the qualities that made the 2008 revival a critical and commercial success, including the evocative set design by Michael Yeargan and the exuberant musical staging by Christopher Gattelli.
But what takes this production to the next level - what makes it so special that it has been chosen as the first of its kind to be filmed for DVD release - is the cast. The casting of this Australian production of SOUTH PACIFIC is pure and simply genius.
The five central characters are played by an eclectic group of Antipodean performers who each bring their own particular strengths to the stage as they tell of the lives and loves of a disparate group of people thrown together on a Pacific Island during World War 2.
Kate Ceberano is sensational as Bloody Mary, the astute and opportunistic Tonkinese woman hawking grass skirts and shrunken heads to the Americans stationed on the island. Her Bloody Mary is full of character but never caricature, hinting at a desperation simmering below the bravado and never playing solely for laughs; Ceberano's Bali H’ai is a beautifully sung manipulation that speaks of a perfect island dream already sacrificed to foreign invasion.
Eddie Perfect as Seabee Luther Billis is pure loveable rogue from his skewed sailor hat right down to his side-stepping feet. Perfect imbues Billis with a kinetic energy that suggests both sexual frustration and an underlying desire to make good; when Perfect leads the male chorus in the frenetic Nothin’ Like A Dame and joins the ladies in Honey Bun for the Thanksgiving Follies we are given classic musical theatre moments of toe-tapping joy that are relished by all involved.
By contrast, Daniel Koek as Lieutenant Joseph Cable portrays a man who wears both his heart and his conflict on his sleeve. With a voice nothing short of sublime, Koek’s tender Younger Than Springtime is simply gorgeous, while his rendition of You Have To Be Carefully Taught is both subtle and devastating at the same time.
And then there are the leads - Opera sensation Teddy Tahu Rhodes as French plantation owner Emile de Becque and the much-loved Lisa McCune as Little Rock’s Ensign Nellie Forbush. To say that Rhodes and McCune have chemistry is rather like saying that the sun is merely hot. The energy they give off could power the whole show in fact.
For a start there is the physicality of the pairing. Teddy Tahu Rhodes is a towering force, both in voice and body, and he provides the perfect anchor to the lightness of McCune with her sweet voice and slight frame. The push-pull dynamic of these opposites plays like something from the classic romances of 1930’s and 40’s cinema; an energy sparks and cracks between the two leads but it is all kept just below the surface, which of course only increases its effect. It is a testament to the talent of all involved in the production that this chemistry is but one of the stars of SOUTH PACIFIC.
Triple threat McCune is a talented and generous performer. Her timing and reactions give the other cast members so much to play off. And you just can’t keep your eyes off her, whether she is portraying Nellie at the dizzy and delirious beginnings of her romance in I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair or collapsing under the burden of her own prejudice when she discovers Emile has fathered two children to a Polynesian woman, and thus breaks off the affair.
It is no mean feat to hold the stage so completely when one is sharing that stage with Teddy Tahu Rhodes. In his first musical theatre role, Rhodes has such presence that the person sitting next to me literally gasped when he first appeared. And that was before she heard him sing. To experience this world-class baritone live is to feel a song as much as to hear it. Rich and resonant, his voice is a thing of great beauty and command and it hits you square in the chest when it is unleashed; even when he speaks it sounds like music. Continued next page.
While Some Enchanted Evening is the beloved jewel of SOUTH PACIFIC, it is Rhodes’ exquisite This Nearly Was Mine that elicits the loudest cheers on Melbourne's opening night. In this lament to the ephemeral nature of love and joy Rhodes reveals the heart and soul of both the man, and in some ways the musical itself – the idea of what people have, and what they must lose when paradise is altered. For pathos it is matched only by McCune’s heart-wrenching second act reprise of Some Enchanted Evening where Nellie comes to the painful understand of how losing love can sit right up against the joy of finding it.
The show never misses a beat when the focus is shifted to the stellar chorus and supporting players, while the 25 piece orchestra under the baton of Vanessa Scammell effortlessly shifts from tentative to exuberant when the mood and the moment requires. Lighting Designer Donald Holder provides a kind of visual soundtrack to accompany these changes in pace, and Catherine Zuber’s gorgeous 1940’s costumes range from cheeky to elegant, ensuring there is beauty to be found in even the uglier moments of this show.
When you consider that a musical first performed in 1949 is still moving and inspiring audiences today, you have a fresh reminder of the genius of Rodgers & Hammerstein, and how these master craftsmen of the book musical were also brave and insightful social commentators. Not so much ahead of their time as keenly observant of human interaction at any time. Love, passion, prejudice and opportunism – against the backdrop of war these behaviours may be heightened, but they can be found any time, anywhere that people come together.
Exploring themes that resonate more than 60 years on, this production of SOUTH PACIFIC is an experience that for first-timers could kick off a life-long love affair with musical theatre. And for those of us already deep in the throes, this enchanting evening serves as a potent reminder of just why we fell.
Years from now we will say "I saw that production" - and still consider it of a rare and beautiful kind.
Opera Australia & John Frost presents The Lincoln Center Theatre Production of
SOUTH PACIFIC by Rodgers & Hammerstein
Princess Theatre, Melbourne
September 13 to November 25, 2012
For tickets and further information visit www.southpacificmusical.com.au
Middle image credit: Jeff Busby