Exquisite – South Pacific is a flawless production

Hot on the heels of one Pulitzer Prize winning musical in Sydney (A Chorus Line) comes another with the iconic South Pacific, which is arguably one of the best examples of the classic musical.

South Pacific. Image by Kurt Sneddon
Lisa McCune as Nellie Forbush. Image by Kurt Sneddon

A collaboration between the Broadway dream-team of composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, South Pacific dominated the Broadway stage upon its initial run in 1949 that is almost unprecedented (Another 1949 debut musical inspired by World War II, Sherwood and Berlin’s Miss Liberty, received resoundingly negative reviews and ran for 308 performances; South Pacific ran for 1,925). The original Broadway staging won 10 Tony Awards. The 2008 Broadway revival, which has been imported into Opera Australia’s 2012 season, won 7. There is a reason why the years of Oscar and Hammerstein are called the golden age of musicals.

We’re lucky to revisit that golden age in Sydney now, via the Lincoln Center’s revival staging of South Pacific directed by Bartlett Sher (Blood and Gifts, The Light in the Piazza) with movement by Chris Gatelli (who won a Tony Award this year for choreographing Disney’s Newsies on Broadway).

A book musical, South Pacific has a story and a message, and the songs are used in what is often the best possible way for musicals: as an emotional centre. These are musicals that have the structure and sustained plot of a play, with songs to carry the heart of it, and it works. People sing when they must and the speaking scenes have just as much weight. It’s a well-balanced musical.

[pull_left]This production explodes with life, colour, and detail at a level that is simply unparalleled[/pull_left]

It also introduces a strong social message, proving that musicals can just as thoughtfully consider racism and conservative convention as straight plays, if done right. South Pacific does it right by being no more than gently thought-provoking, just enough to matter, just enough to resonate. Without the social conscience of Carousel or South Pacific, we wouldn’t have any number of contemporary musicals that dare to comment on the world; we wouldn’t have Stephen Sondheim. We owe a lot to the work Rodgers and Hammerstein gave to the theatre.

This South Pacific, currently at the Opera Theatre in the Sydney Opera House, is transformative. It’s an elegant production that is exceedingly well-directed; every scene is given the moments it needs to work well; every scene is given the chance to breathe. Nothing is rushed or overlooked. It’s perfectly-paced and character-driven, which is a treat.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Lisa McCune. Image by Kurt Sneddon
Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Lisa McCune are perfectly cast in South Pacific. Image by Kurt Sneddon

This show is an utter pleasure to watch. Every character has a moment. There’s a unified individuality to each member of the ensemble that not only sets up a vibrant world outside of the leading characters, but also makes for a dynamic stage experience – this production explodes with life, colour, and detail at a level that is simply unparalleled.

Nellie Forbush, the nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas (1949 was a good year on Broadway for ladies from Little Rock; Gentlemen Prefer Blondes‘ Lorelei Lee also debuted on stage that year) is buoyant, and Lisa McCune is an utter delight in this leading role. Her unassuming charm is the perfect match for the more polished Emile de Becque (Teddy Tahu Rhodes). Their love story is genuinely sincere and Nellie’s prejudices are subtly, but effectively, explored when she learns her love Emile has a past – and it’s not the past you expect.

Her nurses are brilliant, too – ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa my Hair’ and ‘I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy’ are nothing short of pitch-perfect, with a beautifully developed sense of mirth and fun.

South Pacific. Image by Kurt Sneddon
Bali H’ai may call you… Image by Kurt Sneddon

Daniel Koek’s Lt. Joseph Cable, who falls in love with the young island native Liat (Celina Yuen) manages a unique blend of warm stoicism. His number, ‘You’ve got to be Carefully Taught’ (a song once considered too radical for the stage in its frank assessment of racial prejudice) is an emotive, captivating moment of musical theatre.

Eddie Perfect, as raucous Seabee Luther Billis, is a deliciously ribald triple-threat, leading the rag-tag assembly of navy men through some of the funniest ensemble work seen in Sydney of late (particularly in ‘Bloody Mary and ‘There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame’. He is consistently, endearingly entertaining, and earned plenty of laughs through the night. So too Kate Cebrano, who brings a natural comic flair to Bloody Mary, peddling island souvenirs to soldiers and matchmaking with her daughter Liat.

While the cast is exceptional – the ensemble shines brightly with exceeding talent and the featured players are exciting, with strong vocals and, very importantly, strong acting – it’s Teddy Tahu Rhodes who is the heart and soul of this production. The operatic sensation in his first musical – incredibly his first, given the calibre of his performance – brings the mysterious Frenchman de Becque to life with stunning humanity, grace, and surprisingly effortless comic timing. His ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ is the best I’ve ever heard.

This is a flawless production. The staging and costumes are a treat. The 34-piece orchestra is nothing less than an aural pleasure; South Pacific’s score is achingly beautiful and unabashedly joyous. And yet through all this the time and place of the show is never underplayed. This production never forgets that the action is taking place during war and this is keenly felt – not just with uniforms or de Becque and Cable’s mission, but with the ‘Honey Bun’ reprise of marching soldiers, with the staging, with its atmosphere. It’s remarkable.

South Pacific is the perfect mix of gravity and lightness. It doesn’t miss a beat. It’s exquisite.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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