The casting of Lisa McCune as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific provoked some dread. In fact this proved unfounded. Partnered with the most charismatic of contemporary opera stars, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, McCune is much better than you would imagine. She has somehow conjured up a whole repertoire of brassy Mary Martin-style panache in her voice, and her acting, if a bit quiet, is seamless and natural. Her co-star sings like the darkest and most velvet-voiced angel and looks like a god. He is not a natural at the tricky transitions between speech and song which are the mainstay of the musical, so he does not rival his own brilliance and naturalness as an actor-singer in opera, but this is a part written for an opera singer and his voice and looks give him a monumental magnificence that is hard to get around.
Beyond that, Bartlett Sher’s production, which won a swag of Tonys in New York, belongs to the upper level of viable American cheesiness. It is spacious and watchable at every point, and the collaboration of Opera Australia and John Frost makes for a very enjoyable evening.
South Pacific is one of the most lustrous of all musicals. Not only does it bring together an operatic bass voice — the role of the middle-aged Frenchman Emile De Becque was written for Bruno Walter’s Don Giovanni, Ezio Pinza, arguably the greatest known to history — and a sassy, sub-Ethel Merman leading lady. But this conjunction of ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ and ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’, of heroic European cultivation and pert Southern gusto, also involves the archetypal theatre of the Pacific War against the Japanese, when General MacArthur commanded the Allied forces in Asia from his Brisbane headquarters.
Both Casablanca and War and Peace testify to the deep seductiveness of romance set in a tucked away but crucial corner while a mighty conflict rages just out of earshot. The combo creates a paradisal sense of sheltered leisure in the midst of mighty drama (which, needless to say, eventually impinges) but South Pacific is in fact the great American folk opera both of the second world war and of a world elsewhere.
The bestseller from which it derives, James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, was the first of his epics, and Oscar Hammerstein in fact had uncharacteristic trouble with the book of South Pacific. In some ways it is an early parable, writ popular, of the Cold War period — it is no coincidence that Bloody Mary and her daughter are Tonkinese — and if it seems sometimes to look forward to Kennedy saying America would meet any foe (the policy that led to the Vietnam War) it also anticipates the concern that underlay the Civil Rights movement in its treatment of Nellie Forbush’s battle with her dyed-in-the-wool Arkansan racism in the face of De Becque’s coloured children. Then there’s Cable’s angry awareness, after he falls in love with the Tonkinese girl, of how you have to be carefully taught to distrust those whose eyes are differently made and hate all the people your relatives hate. This caused problems in the Deep South when the show was new, and it gives South Pacific a bite that does not diminish but does complicate its swoony South Seas lyricism and oceanic schmaltz.
The show moved the audience like a dream for all the homeliness of both the script and this recranking of Bartlett Sher’s rather retro production, replete with the campest looking sailors ever assembled on a stage (who looked — none too lustrously — as if they could easily have thought of a substitute for a dame).
This is a South Pacific that takes a seabath in nostalgia with buxom beauties in bathing costumes and lots of busy histrionic posturing and strutting.
It doesn’t matter — however far from ideal it may be — because the guts of the show works. Lisa McCune has 15 or so years on the ideal Nellie Forbush and ten or so on viable candidates for the part. I would have confidently cast Christie Whelan, about to hit the boards again with Geoffrey Rush in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but having seen McCune I’m glad she did it. She sings the great tunes very well and she manages to naturalise them without seeming pert. She stabilises South Pacific and succeeds in creating a Nellie Forbush who is ordinary and sane rather than a sick-making show-off.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes doesn’t have the kind of effortless elan he has in Don Giovanni, the sort of surging energy that allows him to outstare the vulgarity of that production where he has to cavort in leather underpants and which shows him to be a great singer-actor in the operatic tradition, as did the performance Bruce Beresford got out of him in Previn’s Streetcar. He could do with more alert direction as Emile De Becque, to get rid of a residual stiffness and to stop him sounding, given the mike he wears as a needless burden, like an Othello with a French accent. In the end it doesn’t matter because he looks so good. Has Emile De Becque ever been sung by a singer of such sweeping vocal authority who at the same time looks like a leading man to die for?
Kate Cebrano as Bloody Mary is constantly arresting with a half-angry humour and magnetism. If her ‘Bali Ha’i’ is a contemporary translation of that spooky siren call to the South Seas of the mind’s eye and the heart’s desire, it seems churlish to object. As the comical wiseguy Luther Billis, Eddie Perfect has plenty of streetboy butch charm. He sings well (and well inside his range) and he does his absurd drag act rather well, though it would have been interesting to see what his old comrade-in-arms Mike McLeish (Keating in Keating! the musical) would have made of the role, given that he would fit more closely the hardboiled New York prototype.
Daniel Koek sings superbly as Cable but his acting is a bit generalised and tilts slightly in the straw hat direction that afflicts John Frost endeavours.
So does the residual fuzziness of some degree of the direction of the ensemble. At times you get the feeling of an inadvertently camp imitation of something which is self-consciously a bit camp in the first place.
Fortunately this doesn’t dissipate the sparkle of the romance or the residual push of the drama. Ideally these old musicals, at least the ones with dated scripts (which is generally true of Rodgers and Hammerstein) should be tarted up, just as Julian Fellowes tarted up Mary Poppins, but somehow this South Pacific survives what has not been done to it.
If it remains, like Nellie’s description of herself, as corny as Kansas in August, it also touches something in the soul which the enchantment of the songs preserves like a memory of love and war.
South Pacific is at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre until 11 November and the Lyric Theatre in Brisbane from 27 December.