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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Helpmann Awards

Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson in The Secret River. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson in The Secret River. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Sydney Theatre Company’s stage adaptation of The Secret River was the big winner at the 2013 Helpmann Awards, receiving six awards from 11 nominations including Best Play, Best Direction of a Play (Neil Armfield) and Best New Australian Work.

Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s award-winning novel was a popular choice at last night’s ceremony at the Sydney Opera House, hosted by Eddie Perfect and Christie Whelan Browne.

However, the musical category has caused a fair amount of discussion on social media, with some believing that South Pacific was unjustly snubbed.

King Kong – the new musical from Global Creatures – had been portrayed in some sections of the media as the main rival to The Secret River in terms of its potential to sweep the awards.

But it was Legally Blonde that took out the main awards in the musicals category, winning five from eight nominations including Best Musical (over South Pacific, The Addams Family and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Best Direction and Best Choreography in a Musical (Jerry Mitchell) and performing awards for Lucy Durack and Helen Dallimore.

Rob Mills and Lucy Durack in Legally Blonde. Photo: Jeff Busby

Rob Mills and Lucy Durack in Legally Blonde. Photo: Jeff Busby

Tellingly, King Kong was not nominated for Best Musical or Best Direction of a Musical – and rightly so, I would suggest, for a show that most critics agree needs more work on its book.

However, King Kong picked up four design awards (though Marius de Vries’ original music lost out to Iain Grandage’s for The Secret River.)

The show was also given a special award for Outstanding Theatrical Achievement for the design, creation and operation of King Kong – the creature. Apparently there was genuine discussion at one point as to whether King Kong himself could actually be nominated as best performer. He is certainly truly extraordinary but since he is a puppet, common sense prevailed.

Technically King Kong was not eligible for consideration at this year’s awards since it had its opening night on June 15 after the cut-off date of May 31. However, the rules allow for late inclusions in “exceptional circumstances” and given the relatively weak field of musicals over the last year, the decision to include it was presumably made to bolster the field.

For my money, Bartlett Sher’s production of South Pacific – presented by Opera Australia in association with John Frost – was the best musical of the year. Of course, that’s a subjective view, however, it did win Best Musical at the Sydney Theatre Awards over Legally Blonde, Love Never Dies and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

There’s also the question of whether a revival should be judged against a new musical, let alone a new Australian musical, and whether we should be giving Best Musical awards anyway to shows that are carbon copies of overseas productions, regardless of how well we perform them. (We could still give awards for performances in a musical).

Among the four nominees for Best Musical this year, only John Frost’s Forum (seen in Melbourne) was a new production created in Australia.

The Helpmann Awards have always been a curious beast. Trying to create live entertainment awards with a national reach in such a vast country where few voters have seen all the nominations in any given category is always going to be a challenge with the inevitable oddities and anomalies occurring as a result. (People can only vote in a category if they have seen at least two nominations.)

There is probably more chance of voters having seen all the nominations in the musicals category than any other as most of them tour nationally – as Legally Blonde and South Pacific did.

There seemed to be a few curious omissions among the nominations this year. With no disrespect to any of the nominated performers, it seemed strange, for example, that none of the cast of South Pacific were nominated despite the production being up for Best Musical.

Such oversights have happened before (remember when Cate Blanchett failed to gain a nomination for her stellar performance in A Streetcar Named Desire).

For me there were one or two others this year but it is inappropriate to name names when, again, these things are so subjective.

Partly I’m sure that this is the result of trying to ensure a broad geographical spread of nominations (though there are always complaints that Sydney and Melbourne are over-represented) and partly because it is the producers who put forward the nominations in the first place, paying a $50 fee per entry.

You can’t help thinking that there must be at least some element of strategy as to who and what a producer nominates in order to raise the profile of a show or a performer.

I have also always found it odd that the Helpmanns give awards for Best International Contemporary Concert. This year Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Wrecking Ball won over Coldplay, Barry Gibb and Tedeschi Trucks Band & Trombone Shorty. Doubtless the producing team and their staff work extremely hard to make these tours happen but surely the Helpmann Awards should be about honouring and supporting Australian entertainment.

Among other major awards, Geoffrey Rush won Best Male Actor in a Musical for Forum, Colin Friels won Best Male Actor in a Play for Belvoir’s Death of a Salesman, Alison Bell (who had two nominations in the one category) won Best Female Actor in a Play for Hedda Gabler at the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Opera Australia’s Salome won four opera awards, while Bangarra Dance Theatre collected two.

With 43 categories, it was a loooong night running around four hours. The entertainment helped maintain interest notably Tim Minchin singing “When I Grow Up” from Matilda the Musical, and performances by the casts of Grease and Hot Shoe Shuffle, among others.

For a full list of awards go to: www.helpmannawards.com.au

Disclaimer: Jo Litson is one of the industry voters for the Helpmann Awards.