|South Pacific | Lincoln Center Theatre|
|Written by Jack Teiwes|
|Sunday, 12 August 2012 16:46|
Left – Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Lisa McCune. Cover – Eddie Perfect. Photos – Jeff Busby
For many, 1949's South Pacific is regarded one of the greatest Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, if not indeed one of the all-time greatest musicals. To a certain generation (read: both one of my bosses and my own mother) the 1958 film version was a seminal experience of Hollywood-meets-Broadway from their youth, and every song lyric is a well remembered flash of nostalgia.
For me, however, this is one that, for a long time, I never really "got". Although I had the good fortune to see it for the first time as a big professional stage production in a now long-demolished Sydney theatre, I must admit that as a teenager it didn't really grab me in the same way that other Broadway musicals of a similar era and stature did, like Guys and Dolls or West Side Story. Oh sure, the songs were good, and I retained quite a fondness for them over time, but the story just didn't grab me, nor did the characters particularly, other than ineffable battleaxe Bloody Mary, the Tonkinese hawker.
So it was actually something of a secondary choice when, fast-forwarding a couple of decades, I snagged a reasonably-priced seat from TKTS to see a revival production at the Lincoln Center, while I was visiting New York a few years ago. It's not that I didn't want to see it, South Pacific just wasn't high on my list, given the lukewarm but distant memories of my prior exposure. Not quite a tough sell, but I wasn't going in already a fan; so they had to win me over.
And boy, did they ever.
I finally "got it". I understood why people love this musical. It may not have shot into the stratosphere of my own personal top five, but I got it. The characters are engaging, the pace is tight, the largely conflict-devoid WWII setting is glamorous, the dialogue is funny and the romance is, for the most part, appealing. But the songs are what really sell it. Scrap my appraisal as a callow youth that they were "good", these songs are GREAT. From the showstopping early number "There is Nothin' Like a Dame" delivered by a robust and well-choreographed male chorus of Seabees (naval Construction Battalions) you are hooked, line and sinker, into this energetic piece of theatre.
Now, if it sounds like I'm going on about a show I saw three years ago in a different country instead of talking about what was on at the Sydney Opera House last night, well, you're only half right. You see, this current staging is in fact a transfer of that same Lincoln Center production that won seven Tony Awards, and apart from a rather differently shaped stage, it is an essentially identical show, right down to the sets and costumes.
Which is not, however, to say that it was an identical experience.
As much of a thrill as that New York performance was, and even despite the benefit of a much better seat than the distant vantage point from my acrophobic perch in the circle last night, our local cast was, frankly, better. While I can't altogether discount a modicum of bias in favour of familiar faces, the biggest boon here was the quality of the outstanding voices. Headlined by Kate Ceberano, Lisa McCune, Eddie Perfect, and antipodean operatic superstar Teddy Tahu Rhodes, this show was a dream even just to listen to, and it would be a damn shame if they don't make a cast recording.
Indeed, the silkily booming resonance of Rhodes' rich bass-baritone was such that you could feel a genuine ripple of awed excitement go through the crowd in reaction to the first few bars of his unfettered sonic testosterone. But aside from the aural shock and awe of Rhodes' voice for anyone unfamiliar with his work in opera (being as this is his first musical), it was an excellent performance of what can be a potentially somewhat boring character, who instead came across in his rendition as sympathetic, romantic and even having a warm sense of humour.
All those things and more, of course, were to be found in our other headliner, the irrepressible Lisa McCune. I've said it before and will say it again; anyone who still thinks of McCune primarily in her underwhelming television roles has really never taken the real measure of this incredibly talented and versatile performer; truly one of our greatest stage-musical stars today. She may not have the va-va-voom of a Rhonda Burchmore, the diva-elegance of a Marina Prior or the kooky pizazz of a Caroline O'Connor, but she packs her own triple-threat of charm, humour and dramatic range that is unmatched by any Aussie leading lady of musicals that I've seen in the past couple of decades; and with a great voice to boot. Her name-recognition from TV may sell tickets, but it is her abundant talent and connection with audiences that earns her these well-deserved lead roles.
Indeed, while they don't share many scenes together, there is an appreciable frisson between Rhodes and McCune that makes their characters' somewhat bumpy romance all the more credible, and their solos about each other in absentia seem all the more keenly felt.
Yet there are other major players in this ensemble cast, and none disappoint. Kate Ceberano nicely balances the inherent humour of Bloody Mary without straying too far into offensive ethnic caricature (although your mileage may vary), and still managing some powerhouse singing despite affecting the character's heavy accent. As her counterbalancing fellow comic relief character, Eddie is Perfect as wheeling, dealing, rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold Luther Billis, quipping in a delightfully pronounced nasal Brooklyn twang and sneaking in a few extra lewd gestures of his own devising, I'm sure. Without Mary and Billis South Pacific would still have an appeal as a tale of wartime romance in an exotic locale, but they provide the much-needed wit, cynicism and grist to the mill of the plot that really bumps the story up a vital notch.
That said, however, the musical is not without its shortcomings and plot is one of them. Having not been grabbed by this story as a teen and then subsequently having been grasped firmly by it when I first saw this production in America, a reprise viewing last night after a shorter juncture did, in fact, bring into sharper relief some of the things I still don't feel entirely work. The story is frankly a little weak, with two barely-intersecting romantic plots loosely conspiring with the comic relief characters' schemes to reach an offstage climax which, although dramatically more satisfying than one might expect, owes far more to the wartime setting than a particularly organic outgrowth of the presented narrative beyond some fairly basic character motivations.
And speaking of the romances, there is something about these that does not entirely sit right. While a lot of the appeal of this musical is unquestionably that of nostalgia of and for older generations, there are elements of story and character that do now feel a whiff dated, and potentially uncomfortable. While I generally resist offering up over half century-old pieces of popular culture to be carved up on the alter of present-day political correctness, in a way, South Pacific is kind of asking for it. Containing as it does not one but two love-plots that are potentially derailed by fear of racial prejudice, and featuring one of the most notable anti-racism songs of all time in "You've Got to be Carefully Taught", it is conversely both a product of its less-enlightened times as much as it is of its more-enlightened intentions. As awesome and commanding a presence as she is, Bloody Mary is a character that skirts racial stereotypes that would be scorned if appearing in something written today, however true-to-life she may have actually been. In particular though, the subplot in which she offers up her "Younger than Springtime" daughter Liat to American marine Lt. Joseph Cable is something hard to accept entirely at face value after decades of subsequent Postcolonialism.
Similarly, although Rhodes' leading man Emile De Becque very openly says that he makes no apology for his "coloured" children borne by a native woman, and protests his incomprehension at the shock this delivers to Nellie's Southern upbringing, one can't help but notice that he does spend quite a while actively concealing them from her. Moreover, the reversal of his crucial decision over whether to embark on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines is entirely predicated on how the likelihood of his death might affect his newfound love Nellie, yet making orphans of his young kids seemingly doesn't enter into it.
Perhaps it is churlish to raise such interrogative considerations against so cheerful a musical with as clearly earnest a message of tolerance, but such questions do percolate in one's mind during the few boring scenes which, despite the best efforts of Daniel Koek as Lt. Cable and Celina Yue as Liat, remain both awkward and unengaging.
Yet it is a small price to pay, when one considers the barnstorming fun of McCune and Perfect's "Honey Bun" double-act, the absorbing duets with Rhodes' knee-trembling voice, bored Seabees lusting after jogging nurses, Ceberano's mercenary machinations, or McCune and her ensemble belting out "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" with such a sassy, sexy verve that might be said (at the risk of intergenerational heresy) to give Mitzi Gaynor a serious run for her money.
If you know what you're in for with South Pacific, this superb local mounting of an excellent U.S. production will be an absolute thrill. If you've never seen the musical before, either on stage or screen, then you couldn't ask for a finer initiation to this stalwart classic. Without benefit of nostalgia, there may be aspects that don't entirely jibe or could perhaps raise an eyebrow, but I hope, and trust, that by and large you too will be won over by the sheer joy and fun of this barnstorming show.
Opera Australia presents a Lincoln Center Theatre production
Rodgers and Hammerstein
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Venue: Sydney Opera House
Dates: 11 Aug – 9 Sep, 2012
Tickets: $129 – $79
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