South Pacific

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, September 12

Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Jeff Busby

Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Opera Australia’s South Pacific opened last year it became the most successful production in the history of the Sydney Opera House – and so it’s back, by popular demand, with Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes reprising their starring roles.

They are joined by several new cast members: Gyton Grantley as Luther Billis, Christine Anu as Bloody Mary and Blake Bowden as Lieutenant Cable, all of them terrific.

With its memorable songs and stirring story, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical is one of the greatest all of time and Bartlett Sher’s magnificent production, which originated at New York’s Lincoln Centre in 2008, really does make for an enchanted evening.

First performed in 1949, in the wake of World War II, the show’s exploration of war, class and, in particular, racism was radical in its day.

The musical is set on a South Pacific island where the Americans are doing strategic battle with the Japanese. At its heart is Ensign Nellie Forbush (Lisa McCune), a “hick” nurse from Little Rock who falls in love with French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) but must confront her prejudice when she discovers he has fathered two children with a Polynesian woman.

Restaging his production for OA on Michael Yeargan’s elegant sets, Sher gives full rein to the show’s romance and exuberant production numbers but balances this with a gritty truthfulness, ensuring that the show’s serious themes still hit home. Keeping the staging relatively simple, he puts the focus firmly on the characters and the human story they tell rather than razzle-dazzle.

McCune is lovely as Nellie. The warmth, sparkle, playfulness and emotional depth she brings to the role is utterly beguiling, keeping us on Nellie’s side despite her self-confessed small-mindedness. The final scene, when she moves beyond this to accept Emile and his children, is deeply moving while her earlier, high-spirited rendition of I’m Gonna Watch That Man Right Outa My Hair is musical theatre at its most joyous. Her bright voice sounds stronger this time around; it really is a stunning performance.

Appearing in his first musical, Rhodes, who has an international opera career, is sensational as Emile. The role was originally written for opera’s Ezio Pinza and Rhodes’s beautiful, burnished bass-baritone is so rich and powerful that his renditions of Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine are utterly thrilling. What’s more, the chemistry between him and McCune sizzles.

The subplot concerns the educated, courageous Lieutenant Joe Cable (Blake Bowden) who falls in love with Tonkinese girl Liat (Celia Yuen)  – the daughter of Bloody Mary – but knows he could never take her back to America as his wife. Bowden gives a sensitive portrayal, making Cable’s conflicting emotions convincing and understandable, and sings smoothly though his voice sounded slightly tight at the top of his register on opening night.

Making an impressive musical theatre debut, Grantley gives a wonderful robust, endearingly comic performance as the rascally seabee Billis who is sweet on Nellie, while Anu brings plenty of fiery grunt to Bloody Mary in a nuanced performance.

There is strong support from the rest of the company and the energetic ensemble, while the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra’s performance of the glorious score, under conductor Vanessa Scammell, is a delight.

All in all, this is musical theatre of the highest order, justifying its inclusion in an opera season.

South Pacific plays at the Sydney Opera House until November 2 then in Perth, November 10 – December 6 and Adelaide, December 29 – January 12

Edited versions of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on September 15, 2013 and in August 2012

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