When Opera Australia’s South Pacific opened in Sydney last year, something wonderful happened: it resonated with people. Embarking on a lengthy Australian tour, it’s finally back at the Opera House, and it’s better than ever.
A classic musical – one of the most highly-regarded musicals of the last century – South Pacific is a true gem from Rodgers and Hammerstein. A blueprint of the contemporary musical, South Pacific is a story of love, war, prejudice and understanding, and America’s Bart Sher (who directed the Lincoln Center production of South Pacific, which this production replicates) ensures all these threads are woven into a cohesive, interesting, rewarding piece of musical history. This is no simple song-and-dance machine.
Oftentimes, American musicals act as something of a social mirror, and this show, which was originally staged in 1949, is exactly that. Based on James A. Michener’s memoirs about fighting in World War II in the South Pacific region, it’s a topic that was fresh in audience’s minds; its progressive message on racism and gentle probing of stereotypes signalled a wider shift in thinking in the American discourse (while, at the same time, being regarded as highly controversial). This show had a finger on the pulse in a way that Hair, Cabaret, and Rent would do in the future.
It has plenty to say and represents plenty of social mores and musical influences of that late 1940s time period, but aside from all of that: this show sparkles. Opera Australia’s production is a twinkle in its eye, mixing gravitas with the pure joy of classic musical theatre. The dialogue is lively and the songs are sublime; the performers have never been better, and the love story at the heart of this show is sweet, sincere and impossible to resist.
From the overture, and the tender opening scene between Emile De Becque (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) and Nellie Forbush (Lisa McCune), the show is already a joy to behold; the 33-piece orchestra, led by Vanessa Scammell, soars, and Rhodes and McCune are so well-acquainted with the characters that they radiate warmth.
The show continues its magic while never compromising its narrative; the scenes without songs are treated as something to be relished, not rushed through, and that’s such a rare thing on Australian musical theatre stages.
The choreography is lively and largely character-based. Tony award-winning choreographer Chris Gattelli created movement that unites an ensemble by individualising it, and its integrity is upheld by dance captain Erin James with possibly more success than the last time around – this is the sort of life you want your ensemble to take on, this embodiment of the show’s ideals and its atmosphere. This ensemble knows when to breathe. When you watch “Bloody Mary” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” or “Honey Bun” you notice fully-formed and consistent character choices in every ensemble member that extends beyond the named characters like the Professor (an utterly endearing Rowan Witt).
The show seems funnier than it was last year, higher-spirited, laced with the free abandon of young, or young-ish people so far away from home. The vocal performances too are right on the money; Gyton Grantley (Luther Billis) and especially Christine Anu (Bloody Mary), newcomers to the second outing, are such a treat to watch as they tackle their parts with gusto. Anu has never sounded better. Blake Bowden as Lt. Cable has a remarkable tenor and he brings a new sensitivity to the role; this Cable seems more aching for the solace he finds in Bloody Mary’s daughter Liat.
Rhodes and McCune are still enchanting in their leading roles; McCune impossibly ageless and unthinkingly charming, Rhodes stiff but smitten, which feels right. They take their time and linger in their moments together, and the way Sher and the cast have played with time and physical space creates a stronger sense of the kind of love these characters profess to feel; they are apart until they can’t bear not to touch, and it makes the ultimate, chaste connection in the final scene of the play feel entirely real.
This is a show worth seeing once, twice, a half-dozen times. This is one of the best shows in the history of musical theatre, and it’s being created every night by the best of the best in the Australian scene. This might be Lincoln Center’s framework, but the show is thoroughly our own now, and the spellbinding energy and storytelling our Australian cast are bringing to the stage is so important. It is absolutely unmissable.