South Pacific….is so terrific, it connects to people in an amazing way… it is timeless*
Richard Rodgers (1902 – 1979) and Oscar Hammerstein (1895 – 1960) combined both theatre and music together on the world stage during the 1940’s and 1950’s, to amazing success. With hit after hit, Oklahoma (1943), Carousel (1945) State Fair (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), Cinderella (1957), Flower Drum Song (1958) and The Sound of Music (1959) for over two decades, following World War II, they re-worked the whole genre of musical theatre in America.
After resounding success on the stage they also brought their productions to the big screen further expanding their impact and influence. Their thought provoking mature themes addressed such contemporary issues as racism, sexism and the class system in America, which did not sit well with an original declaration of independence that was all about freedom and liberty for all. This is the successful award winning Lincoln Center Theater Production of South Pacific, which was first performed on March 1, 2008 in New York. It has had a record run in Australia’s three east coast cities and will enjoy a repeat performance in Sydney later this year.
This landmark production in Australia featured television sweetheart Lisa McCune as Ensign Nellie Forbush, with the towering and mighty New Zealand born Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the handsome French planter Emile De Becque.
Popular songbirds Kate Ceberano and Christine Anu shared the role of Bloody Mary, with the handsome Daniel Koek as Lt Joseph Cable. Cabaret star Eddie Perfect and popular Australian actor Gyton Grantley also shared the role and were just perfect as Luther Billis, whose crazy antics end up both helping and hindering the war effort.
With tunes you cannot ever forget and words that mean a great deal. South Pacific is now a timeless classic and this production certainly lives up to all the hype that has surrounded its production in Australia. Many of the people may not have even realized that they were actually at an Opera Australia performance, except perhaps if they have followed opera star Teddy Tahu Rhodes brilliant career. His mighty presence certainly lent gravitas to the role of the romantic French planter with a shady past.
At 6’5″ and with a powerful physique he dominates the stage each time he appears on it. His voice, a deep bass-baritone is not one too many people would have ever been exposed to either, the tenor always being the most ‘popular’ of opera style voices. It was a triumph of tone and wonderfully pitch perfect. He brought a richness and resonant depth to the production, one it has perhaps not ever seen before.
Words alone always fail me when I encounter such a great voice, his rendering of ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ and ‘This Nearly was Mine’ had me breaking out in goose bumps.
Within the first decade after the end of World War II, when the South Pacific had been the last theatre of war the Americans were involved in, Rogers and Hammerstein with this musical plumbed the depths of everyone’s emotions.
It reinforced just how due to American involvement, good had triumphed over evil. It was also a panacea for all the ills and grievances associated with that particular time and place. In that context alone it aided societies recovery from that dreadful war to end all wars.
The play was based on James A. Michener’s ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948. Rodgers and Hammersteins adaption of the book for their musical, along with co-writer Joshua Logan won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950, although Logan was not acknowledged at the time. In 1958 when the movie came to the big screen, it featured many of the new technologies now available to movie makers, including wonderful visual effects.
Kate Ceberano is clearly having the time of her life in a complete change for her of musical genre, which surprisingly she is well suited for. This version of South Pacific could just kick start a whole new, different and more mature career for her.
I remember the movie in Sydney running for years in the town, like The Sound of Music when it also happened along as well. My sisters, being 19 – 12 years older than me had all grown up during the war and so musicals in our family were a constant source of enjoyment and part of life.
Three of them were a trio backing group for a popular cabaret star of the time and they would often tap dance and sing away at family gatherings entertaining everyone with a bevvy of songs, especially those from R & H shows.
It means that I do know the numbers from South Pacific very intimately. However they never fail to impress me all over again when encountering the mastery of lyrics by Hammerstein and the powerful music by Rodgers, which was indeed ground breaking.
This cast annunciates the wonderful words so well, that you hear every single one clearly and concisely. As they tell a story of their own, it is important in gaining a greater understanding of the action taking place on stage.
I do hope Teddy Tahu Rhodes gets to perform his role as Emile De Becque on Broadway in the not too far off future. Americans who love musicals would all go wild for him, as the Opera buffs already have whenever he has appeared on stage at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. This production adds yet another level of expertise to his already impressive range of diverse repertoire, which includes Mozart Operas, Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd and a Midsummer Night’s Dream and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking.
His character Emile De Becque is a man who grew up in a complex society. He sought the simple life of a French planter in the South Pacific after fleeing France where he was involved in the death of a town bully. He has two young cross Polynesian children, whose mother is also dead.
This provides a problem for Ensign Nellie Forbush from Little Rock in Arkansas, where culture, class, bigotry and unconditional love all clash. It’s a conundrum that her character must wrestle with if she is to have any chance of happiness with this ‘older’ man she has fallen in love with. Goodness, he’s all of 44 we find out, which in those days for young people related to being ‘ancient’.
Lisa McCune is truly a delight as Nellie. She has great aplomb, and while her voice is not at all operatic, it is a good foil for Rhodes and is full of warmth and sparkle. Nellie is a self-professed hick from a small minded community, whose struggle with how that affects her attraction too him seems to make it all the more credible somehow.
She has to weigh up all her chances and think about what her choice of a life with him in the beauty and magnificence of the South Sea islands will mean, as against what she has only known up until her posting there.
It’s not hard to see what will win out in the end. However it is the in-between journey that makes it all so interesting.
Nellie and the nurses she works with are all stationed nearby the beach where the scamming Luther Billis and his mates Stewpot, Harbison and the Professor hang out, reputedly attending to their corps laundry needs while making a little extra cash on the side. Nellie is on a committee with Luther. They are organizing entertainments to keep the morale of the men so far away from home, high.
Luther is very fond of Nellie and so rigs up a much missed shower down on the beach for she and her friends. This is where she gets busy ‘Washing that Man Right Out of Her Hair’ when her mood dictates after finding out about Emile’s former wife and his children.
Nellie and Luther perform brilliantly together on stage at the Thanksgiving Show when he becomes her ‘Honey Bun’, complete with grass skirt and hair and coconuts for boobs, along with all the supporting cast who are all so wonderful in their roles and integral to the shows outstanding success.
Daniel Koek as Lt Joseph Cable has a tenor voice that is particularly appealing. He’s the star of the sub-plot which includes Liat, the daughter of Bloody Mary, who is prepared to sell her to the highest bidder.
While the anti-racism bell may not ring quite as loudly now as it did in 1949, Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics for ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught’ sung by Lt Cable and Nellie, still packs a punch about the dangers of prejudice for any multi-cultural society.
All is resolved sadly when Lt Cable perishes on a dangerous reconnaissance mission that he has undertaken with Emile’s help. They are hiding out in the hills on Marie Louise Island to spy on Japanese ships coming down a channel between the islands to help bring the war in the Pacific to an end. They have to move constantly, as their radio signals are picked up and they are pinpointed for extermination.
Critics in Sydney and Melbourne and Brisbane all seemed to have viewed this production with great favour. If I found it had any flaws personally I would say that for me the scene of the much awaited visit to Bali Hai with Cable and Luther and a few of his boys was disappointingly staged.
After all the build up with Bloody Mary singing ‘Bali Hai’ and with splendid visual affects offering us a pink-hazed precious view of the twin volcano island, luring us all to its shores, just to place the scenes that finally take place in this fabled place between two rows of venetian blinds, which work so brilliantly in many other scenes, for me entirely failed.
They did not offer a glimpse, or any real sense of the spell the island had already cast on everyone, and become the scene for the splendid romance that supposedly and miraculously developed overnight between Lt Cable and Liat. At the two performances I attended it fell ‘flat’ for me and also judging by the audience response, or lack of it around me, for others as well.
Celina Yuen plays Liat, which she hopes will help her to realize her own small town dream, albeit from Queensland to Melbourne and back again where she hopes this small, but significant role will aid her career hopes for the future.
Bloody Mary singing ‘Happy Talk’ did not seemingly make up for the lack of atmosphere either. Especially as the famous hand movements to the song, that so added so much charm to France Nuyen’s performance in the movie, were in the main absent.
Still it was perhaps only a minor notation in an otherwise flawless production.
Artistic excellence was certainly in evidence, and the sound and lighting skillfully delivered. As was the staging and the costumes and make-up, which were all ‘spot on’. Enjoying the music played by a brilliant ‘South Pacific’ orchestra conducted so well was very special. Those songs sound all the richer for such splendid ‘live’ playing.
All in all Opera Australia’s production of South Pacific proved that there is ‘nothing like a dame and a wonderful guy’. It also goes a long way to ‘changing opera culture in Australia by having an emoldening vision and taking action. ‘
This production of South Pacific will surely introduce thousands to the magic of an operatic voice for the very first time and give people who would not ever contemplate opera attendance, because they feel it is ‘intimidating’, an opportunity to encounter wonderful voices in a way they can more easily relate to.
The grand Thanksgiving Entertainment given by Nellie, Luther and the boys and girls from the beach is certainly a grand entertainment. Her ‘Cock-Eyed Optimist’ was wonderfully sung and very poignant.
Good to see Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini of Opera Australia leading the change needed to make opera voices accessible to more people. Opera Australia’s production of South Pacific was a true feast of tropical delights.
I must admit that was lucky enough to see it twice, once in Melbourne in the winter of 2012 the second in Brisbane in summer between Xmas and New Year. I have to say that for me the Brisbane production seemed much tighter, the stars were far more relaxed and well into their roles and without a doubt everyone was having a ‘wonderful time’.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012
Opera Australia & John Frost present
The Lincoln Center Theater Production of
Roger’s & Hammerstein’s
Lisa McCune as Nellie Forbush
Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Emile Du Becque
Eddie Perfect and Gyton Grantley as Luther Billis
Daniel Koek as Lt Cable
Kate Ceberano and Christine Anu as Bloody Mary
Enjoy a Preview as Teddy Tahu Rhodes sings Some Enchanted Evening
Watch the Producers Talk About this Production