I had watched Bartlett Sher’s famous Lincoln Center Theater revival of South Pacific on YouTube. When I found out it was coming to the Sydney Opera House I immediately saved up for tickets. The performance I attended was the first preview of the revival season.
Romance, intrigue, prejudice, colonialism, war, comedy, tragedy. Those are some of the themes of this 1949 evergreen musical, which has only infrequently been revived. The 2008 production broke ticket records and was one of the most sought-after Broadway tickets for a long time.
Opera Australia imported Sher to direct the revival, and his care shows in the meticulous direction. Catherine Zuber’s period costumes looked splendid, and Michael Yeargan’s bamboo-blind sets ensured quick and noiseless scene changes.
The first comment I have to make is negative. I’ll be generous and say that the numerous failures in the amplification system were due to opening-day glitches. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’ve heard better sound in the talking dolls of my girlhood.
Unfortunately, the rotten microphony seriously undermined the performance of Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Emile de Becque. Saddled with a wretchedly mousy wig (not his fault) and a Pepe LePew French accent (definitely his fault), Rhodes sang well but was mostly incomprensible, both in song and dialogue. (Perhaps this was an ironic homage to the Joan Sutherland Theatre’s namesake, also famous for bad diction.) He did belt out a gorgeous “Some Enchanted Evening” with a legit full-voice concluding high note, but “This Nearly Was Mine”, although delivered with the requisite frustrated regret, was clear as mud. A shame.
Logie-winning Lisa McCune as Ensign Nellie Forbush could not have been any better if she’d held a séance and channeled the spirit of Mary Martin. A delightful actress with just enough spunk to be charming without verging into annoyingness, her Nellie was a model of sunny determination. Her act 1 mood swing from the go-girl-feminism of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair” to the dreamy head-over-heels romance of “I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy” was communicated with perfect naturalness and a sweet singing voice. I must also commend her FLAWLESS American accent. As someone who criticizes pronunciation regularly and is well-used to spotting bad dialects, I had not a single complaint. Brava.
Christine Anu, normally a sexy corkscrew-curled chanteuse, was nearly unrecognizable as Bloody Mary: stooped, with betel-nut stained teeth and stringy hair. A few crooned phrases couldn’t ruin her haunting “Bali H’ai”, and the way she relished the phrase “STINGY BASTARD!” elicited loud laughs.
(Related question: Is Bloody Mary a pimp? She pushes Lt. Cable and her daughter Liat into a sexual relationship, hoping he’ll marry her and stay on the island. She asks for no money though, and in fact offers Cable the $600 she has saved selling grass skirts and human heads, as an endowment to start their island life together. Does Western morality make us uncomfortable with this? Ponder.)
Gyton Grantley, familiar to TV viewers from Underbelly, hits precisely the right balance of comic ingenuity and aw-shucks sweetness as Luther Billis, the laundry-running entrepreneur of the base. His drag routine with Nellie in Act 2, which can veer perilously close to ridiculousness, was genuinely funny. Grantley is obviously not a born singer, but he led his Seabees competently in “There is Nothing Like A Dame” (staged here, correctly, not for laughs but as an almost menacing lament of sexual frustration). He too had a perfect American accent: props.
Blake Bowden was adequate if somewhat colorless as Lieutenant Cable. “Younger Than Springtime”, which I’ve always considered to be a bit superfluous, was well sung, and he had a lovely chemistry with the pretty Celina Yuen as Liat. Bartholomew John gave his best George C. Scott impression as Captain Brackett. The ensemble was well-drilled and was obviously enjoying themselves.
Let’s hope they work out the audio issues for the rest of the run, because this is a revival of a historic musical worth watching. Only the most curmudgeonly will be unmoved by its charms.