In their first collaborative rendezvous, Opera Australia and John Frost have produced a highly successful production of South Pacific. Despite this, the show itself has mellowed from its fiercely political origins, and its relevance in a contemporary age is questionable.
It’s no surprise that Lisa McCune is a perfectly charming Nellie Forbush and, in many regards, she is a lot more likeable than Kelli O’Hara (who played the role in the American staging of this production). McCune approaches the role with a delightful sweetness and delicateness that is most evident as she sings. Having already performed in The Sound of Music and with an upcoming stint in The King and I, McCune is rightly considered as an impassable candidate for most popular female Rodgers and Hammerstein protagonists.
Opposite McCune, Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ Emile De Becque lacked somewhat. The audience’s applause for Rhodes was as overwhelmingly thunderous as his spectacular voice, but nothing could excuse his mediocre acting ability and farcical accent. Rhodes is definitely more suited to his operatic roots.
South Pacific is a show of familiar and favourite musical numbers, from the energetic “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” (led by Mitchell Butel as a hilarious but perhaps overly camp Luther Billis) to a haunting “Bali Ha’i” with Christine Anu as a gloriously conniving Bloody Mary.
Rather than being sickly sweet, the double romance featured within the narrative is surprisingly wholesome. Maybe it is just too easy to immerse oneself in a scenario where integrity and love ultimately prevail over inner conflict and crushing external criticism. Bloody Mary’s hasty pairing of Lieutenant Cable (Blake Bowden) and her underage daughter Liat (Celina Yuen) is a little dubious but just as heart wrenching.
Director Bartlett Sher has ensured that a satisfactory pace is maintained throughout, and despite its three-hour duration, South Pacific rarely feels tedious. Where most productions tend to fall short (for example, during the extended sequences of dialogue in Act II), this production maintains the audience’s attention.
The splendidly full orchestra (Adelaide Art Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Gray) are cheated by the tinny and inconsistent sound quality. The Overture and Entr’acte deserved more clarity, and incidental music would often drown dialogue. Maybe it was just an opening night mishap, but it is certainly unusual and disappointing that the orchestra should be treated so dismissively in an auditorium that is acclaimed for its high-end sound.
The staging of this revival is undeniably sleek, with the retractable stage an unexpected stroke of genius, but it is a show that is contemporary only in terms of aesthetic. Of course South Pacific is considered as a high point of the golden era of musicals, but it now mainly relies upon nostalgia at the box office.
This production, which was originally mounted in America in 2008, coincided with the dialogue surrounding Barrack Obama’s candidacy for the American presidency. Without such an historic occasion, it is difficult for a contemporary audience to greet the show with the same mindset of those during its post World War II debut.
Some original dialogue, that had been condemned by conservatives and subsequently omitted by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, has been restored for this production, including a conversation in which Nellie harshly describes Emile’s first wife as “coloured”. Despite this, the narrative doesn’t truly confront, challenge, or move its modern and young audience and as such, simply negates its own purpose.
Admittedly, this particularly flashy production is generally well executed and very enjoyable on a superficial level. But unlike other texts that handle similar themes in a more sophisticated manner, the narrative of South Pacific, along with its humour and inconsequential resolution, simply perpetuates racist, sexist and classist stereotypes.