Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Presented by Opera Australia
Sydney Opera House performance 15th August 2012
Opera house season continues until September 9, 2012.
Lisa McCune as Nellie Forbush
Jeff Busby photo
Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Having sat through quite a few stage productions of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” over the years, and several viewings of the movie, the announcement of a new production by Opera Australia was hardly heart-stopping, even if the casting was intriguing.  However, from the moment Andrew Greene’s superb orchestra struck up the lush strains of the familiar overture, it was impossible not to succumb to the magic of this theatrical masterpiece, set on an island in the South Pacific during the Second World War. 

Michael Yeargan’s settings are certainly not lavish when compared with such recent blockbusters as “Wicked”, “Mary Poppins” or “Love Never Dies”, but they’re evocative and attractive and neatly allow quick clever transitions between scenes while transporting the audience into the milieu of a war-time service base.

Bartlett Sher’s direction isn’t flamboyant.   In fact it’s almost invisible, as good direction should be.  He’s resisted the temptation to include flashy directorial touches, opting instead to allow the show to weave its own special magic. And what a magical show “South Pacific” is still, even after more than 60 years. Its storyline remains involving, you care about the characters, and the songs have something to say and allow the characters to express their inner feelings clearly.  

Sher has the actors move and act naturalistically, without any obvious artifice, but every move and action is carefully designed to serve the story. Without realising it, the audience’s attention is almost surreptitiously drawn into the core of the story from the moment the curtain rises on the two small children playing on a plantation patio.

Teddy Tahoe Rhodes and Lisa McCune
Photo: Jeff Busby

Teddy Tahoe Rhodes and Lisa McCune are superb as Emile De Becque and Nellie Forbush.   Lisa McCune is a clear-eyed and lovable Nellie, totally convinced she’s that “Cockeyed Optimist”. Her sweet, light soprano voice is reminiscent of Mary Martin who originated the role.  Her singing, acting and dancing, naturalistic and unforced.  Her embarrassed confusion when she realises she can’t control her revulsion at the idea that the man with whom she’s falling in love has fathered two Polynesian children is particularly moving.
As Emile De Becque, Teddy Tahoe Rhodes dominates the stage, both physically and vocally. When he unleashes his velvety bass-baritone voice in “Some enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” there’s pure magic that’s worth the price of admission alone. His speaking voice is just as impressive and it’s no surprise to discover he is also an accomplished actor. In his scenes with Nellie, he is warm and romantic.  They generate real chemistry together. But he is also forceful and persuasive with Captain Brackett (a fine performance from John O’May).
Kate Ceberano as Bloody Mary
Photo:Jeff Busby
Kate Ceberano’s “Bloody Mary” is no cute island mamma. This “Bloody Mary” is a wily lioness, intent on finding the right husband for her daughter, Liat. She tolerates the taunts of the sailors because she’s wants their money), but once she decides that Cable is the man for her daughter, she will not be deflected from her goal.

 During the “Happy Talk” scene, in which Mary reveals her dreams for Liat and Cable, Mary rarely takes her eyes off Cable as if trying to will his favourable response.  “Bali Ha’i”, surprisingly, is not nearly as effective. Perhaps because  of the direction, or lack of confidence in the material, Ceberano moves around the stage too much.  Once she finds the courage to remain still and let the song weave its own spell, “Bali Ha’I” will become the showstopper it’s meant to be.
Lisa McCune (Nellie Forbush) Eddie Perfect (Luther Billis)
Photo: Jeff Busby

Not previously known for the clarity of his diction, Eddie Perfect has happily discovered a marvellous gravelly voice for his Luther Billis, which allows a memorable and unique characterisation in which every word is loud and clear. His Billis is a convincingly warm and funny scally-wag, rather than a clown.

 Daniel Koeke as Lt. Joseph Cable also has a strong presence and a lovely voice. He’s equally at home with the warmly romantic “Younger Than Springtime” or the angry bitterness of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”, but it’s his scenes with the graceful Celina Yuen as Liat, which stay in the memory.

Add to all of this the energetic, virile, ensemble each of whom offers an individual characterisation, who dance strongly and punch out the chorus numbers as though they really mean what they are singing and you have a production which is not only does justice to this musical masterpiece, but one which is also a powerful reminder of what a memorable theatrical experience a great musical can be.

South Pacific Ensemble
Photo: Jeff Busby