Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 11, 2012
Musicals never demand we fully believe in what is unfolding, but if performed brilliantly they do allow us to suspend disbelief. Opera Australia’s South Pacific directed by Bartlett Sher (based upon his New York Lincoln Center Theatre production) certainly hits that mark.
Anchoring it is the sheer class and craft of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics. Why, the man even dared to have something to say. “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid… Of people whose skin is a different shade,” he tells us in You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught, and it is hardly as though the anti-racism bell need be rung less loudly now than when the show premiered in 1949.
The wounds of World War Two were still red-raw when this story (by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, based on James A Michener’s Tales Of The South Pacific ) about US sailors in the Pacific war first unfolded.
The central character and the one with the most to learn – about culture, bigotry and unconditional love – is Ensign Nellie Forbush (Lisa McCune). A nurse, Nellie must absorb these lessons before she can fully accept the man for whom she falls: Emile De Becque (Teddy Tahu Rhodes), a French colonial with a dubious past and Polynesian children.
The show pivots on the chemistry between the pair. This self-confessed hick – gauche, small-minded and almost proudly ignorant – is sufficiently redeemed by McCune’s sparkle, warmth and humour for it to be credible that Rhode’s sophisticated Emile should be besotted.
In 1949 musical theatre’s Mary Martin played Nellie and opera’s Ezio Pinza played Emile, and such a combination remains ideal for embedding Richard Rodgers’ score in the fabric of the story-telling. McCune’s lighter voice intensifies Nellie’s frivolity, while Rhodes’ magisterial baritone amplifies Emile’s refinement and aplomb.
Both hoist well-worn songs far above the contempt of familiarity. Because her A Cockeyed Optimist is so delightful, his Some Enchanted Evening seems the only response. Rhodes’ voice (miked up in his first musical) is so monumental as to punch you back in your seat and paper over any little cracks in acting or accent. This Nearly Was Mine is magnificent.
Daniel Koek’s tenor shines in the slightly awkward sub-plot role of Lieutenant Cable, and Eddie Perfect roguishly catches the scamming Luther Billis. In an ensemble with no weak links Kate Ceberano conjures the manipulative Bloody Mary, even if her earthy characterisation robs Bali Ha’i of some of its mock-incantatory quality.
Andrew Greene directs the pin-sharp orchestra, while Sher’s US creative team balance blasting-light reality and hazy, romantic visions. Michael Yeargan’s set, for instance, extensively employs slatted screens that have a dreamy, strobing effect as they fly in and out.
Unlike the 2004 Sydney production this escapes any sense of the show being inherently dated, and is as strong a musical as you will see this year.