BWW Reviews: SOUTH PACIFIC Gains a Deeper and More Thought Provoking Interpretation

Reviewed Tuesday 31st December 2013

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II turned to James A. Michener's 1948 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Tales of the South Pacific as the inspiration for their ever popular musical, South Pacific. This Opera Australia production, from the Lincoln Center Theater, won seven Tony Awards and had great success in Sydney before coming to Adelaide, where it played to a packed house on New Year's Eve.

On an island in the South Pacific during WWII an American nurse, Nellie Forbush, and a French born planter, Emile De Becque, have fallen in love. One of the Seabees, Luther Billis, and a native woman, Bloody Mary, are both trying to make money out of the situations and, when a new man, Lieutenant Joe Cable arrives, they both want to get him to visit Bali Hai, another island not far away. He does, meeting and falling for the beautiful young girl, Liat. These two different love affairs are the main part of the story and, through them, the ignorance, stupidity, and divisiveness of racial prejudice is highlighted.

To list the many awards won by this musical, and all of the individual awards that have been bestowed upon those involved with this production, would take far too long. Suffice to say that the credentials are impressive. It is easy to see why this production has been playing to full houses, and receiving accolades from both critics and audiences. It is certainly the best production of South Pacific that I have seen, and I have seen quite a few, including being involved with three productions myself.

Lisa McCune is an extremely popular performer but it is not her popularity that won her the role of Nellie Forbush. She is simply perfect in the role. She begins as a naive young woman, a self described hick, who has left the simple and sheltered life in Little Rock Arkansas to be confronted by completely different lifestyles that she never knew existed, and a consequential range of emotions for which she is totally unprepared. Her new knowledge and emotional experiences are contrary to everything that she had previously believed and accepted. McCune takes all of that complexity and converts it into a remarkably rich performance that explores all of that, as well as the fact that war is all around and could reach them at any moment, a catalyst for making use of every moment. She has the youthful energy and excitement of a young woman, freed from the confines of home and family, avidly exploring anything new that the world has to offer, then transits into the wiser and more mature person who questions her own upbringing and makes a monumental decision. This is a bravura performance.

Everybody knows that Teddy Tahu Rhodes has a voice that would make any man envious, and many a woman swoon, as well as a huge stage presence and, as we saw in his appearance in the opera, Dead Man Walking, he is also a superb actor. As if that isn't enough talent for one person, in this production we find that he has a good feel for gentle comedy and, what's more, he can also execute a very smooth waltz. With his busy schedule we are very lucky that he was free to play Emile De Becque as it would be hard, if not impossible, to think of anybody else with such a wide range of abilities, certainly not a such a high level. He slips so easily into the role of a sophisticated and eloquent Frenchman who, in spite of his isolation, has read great writers such as Andre Gide, and Marcel Proust. He, too, embraces a range of emotions, from the happiness and excitement at his newfound love with Nellie, to the deep despair when she reconsiders and rejects him. Putting the two performances together causes plenty of sparks to fly.

All round entertainer, Mitchell Butel, especially loved by Adelaide audiences for his appearances in the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, and a big hit recently in the Adelaide Festival Centre Christmas Proms, plays Luther Billis. He was born for the role, giving us a wily but loveable rogue, as crafty as they come and always on the lookout for a way to make a dollar. We discover, though, that Billis is no coward and is a patriotic soldier. Butel is full of energy and, as we knew anyway, he has superb comic timing, but can turn in the more serious moments with aplomb. This is far from the one dimensional characterisations often seen in people playing this role. Butel has found the depth in the character and brought out so much in this interpretation.

My first thoughts on hearing that Christine Anu was to play Bloody Mary was that she looks too young and attractive for the role but, with a little makeup, some good facial expressions, manipulating her voice, and showing what a fine actress she is, it was quickly clear why she was chosen. Like Butel's Billis, her Bloody Mary is a long way from the rather basic interpretations generally encountered. Anu does not merely give us a money making woman, trying to separate the officers and men from their pay. What she presents us with is a devoted and loving mother, doing everything that she can to build up a dowry for her daughter in the hope that an American will marry her and take her to a better life when he returns home after the war. This is a much more rewarding interpretation of the role.

Any one of these four performers alone is a big drawcard but, all four together in one production is almost too hard to believe. But it does not end there, for there is also Blake Bowden, who plays Lieutenant Joe Cable, and Celina Yuen, as Liat. Bowden arrives for a secret mission, but unexpected love, inner turmoil, and illness make his mission much harder than expected. Bowden shows effect on Cable of the ever increasing burden, especially that caused by his love of Liat. Yuen wonderfully manages to convey so much through her movements, demeanour, and facial expressions, without ever saying a word.

All of the minor roles have also been well cast and give supportive and convincing performances, and both the male and female choruses are talented and versatile in the extreme. The casting and direction are in the hands of Bartlett Sher, and congratulations must go to him for the overall vision of this production.

The new orchestrations, by Robert Russell Bennett, are impeccably played by the 26 member Adelaide Art Orchestra, under the Musical Director, Stephen Gray. The balance and clarity is a boon for the Adelaide performances.

The sets, by Michael Yeargan, not only looks good, but allows for fast and silent changes that often happen almost unnoticed, and Donald Holder's lighting design gives them life. The high standards of professionalism in this production cover all aspects.

If you have not yet bought a ticket, and if there are any still available, you will be kicking yourself for a very long time if you do not book and go to see this magnificent production while it is here over the next couple of weeks.

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From This Author Barry Lenny

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