Theatre Review: South Pacific

Based on James A Michener’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, South Pacific is one of the classics of musical theatre containing some of the greatest, most memorable songs of all time.

Presented by Opera Australia & John Frost
Reviewed 31 December 2013

Based on James A Michener’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Tales Of The South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is one of the classics of musical theatre, being a war-time romance with the dark thread of prejudice woven through it, but peppered with humour, and of course, containing some of the greatest, most memorable songs of all time.

This version of the 2008 Lincoln Center Theater production of South Pacific is possibly the definitive one: it is exquisite.

As directed by Bartlett Sher, this version brings out the inner feelings and frailties of the characters clearer than this reviewer has ever seen them portrayed before. He has added some nice authentic touches such as braziers burning in the night beach scenes, a character having suffered a bout of Malaria discharging themself and still showing signs of the disease, someone spending weeks in the jungle and returning dishevelled, and a Seebee whose nickname is Professor, because he is the only one in the unit to have gone to college, wearing glasses – and played hilariously by Rowan Witt.

Sher has also managed to meld scene changes cleverly on Michael Yeargan’s simple but beautifully evocative sets giving the impression of one piece of action fading into another seamlessly. Donald Holder’s lighting design adds perfectly to the whole Pacific atmosphere and even, during the overture, gives a nice little salute to the original technicoloured movie version. The costumes as designed by Catherine Zuber present so appropriately that one would swear that they are back in the 1940s.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s excellent score is treated with magnificent reverence by our own Adelaide Art Orchestra under the strong leadership of Musical Director Stephen Gray. Gray has also managed to bring only the best out of the strongly voiced cast: the great harmonies issuing from the sailors at the end of the song There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame is only one case in point.

As Tonkanese peddler, Bloody Mary, Christine Anu is impressive and makes the role more of a spiritual entity, delivering “Bali Ha’i” with a more hypnotic, softer touch that is far more fitting than the usual belting it gets. Mitchell Butel is hugely energetic, funny and spot on with his portrayal of street-smart hustler, Luther Billis.

Blake Bowden lends his lilting tenor vocals well to the role of Lt. Joseph Cable; while Celina Yuen (Liat), Jeremy Stanford (Commander Harbison), Bartholomew John (Captain Brackett) and a highly talented ensemble all give strong support.

While Teddy Tahu Rhodes is somewhat robotic in his dialogue as French planter Emile De Becque, all sins are forgiven when he sings. His rich, velvety, extremely strong voice pays more than homage to the lovely ballad Some Enchanted Evening, and prepare for goose bumps during Act Two when he presents the ultimate version of This Nearly Was Mine.

As excellent as this cast are, none of them come close to the brilliance that is Lisa McCune as ‘cockeyed optimist’ Nellie Forbush. McCune’s performance is stellar and more than proves why she is fast becoming the new First Lady of the Australian musical theatre stage. Her accent is perfect (and even comes through in her singing voice), and she captures the audience’s understanding of her and her emotions every step of the way. It is McCune’s presence and performance that takes this production from being simply brilliant to simply stunning.

This version would win any war, so get your passport in order and take a trip to South Pacific.

Reviewed by Brian Godfrey

Venue: Festival Theatre Adelaide Festival Centre
Season: 29 December 2013-26 January 2014
Duration: 3 hours including interval
Tickets: $59.90 – $109.90
Bookings: Book through BASS

Photo: Lisa McCune in South Pacific. Photo by Jeff Busy.


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