It seems (after how many years?) we still haven’t washed this musical out of our hair. I can still vividly picture the cover of the soundtrack album owned by my parents and even sharing a sense of reverence, romance, nostalgia and affection they seemed to harbour for it.

It’s another brazenly commercial outing for Opera Australia and the whole company seems to be enjoying itself. For opening night, it turned on every off-stage cliche you can imagine. Rustic huts. Themed canapés. A groaning, cornucopian table of meticulously art directed fruit. It was all in good fun and there was a quantum of art, as well as artifice, involved.

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On stage, of course, we had quite a disparate cast for this, our local staging of the multiple Tony-winning Lincoln Center Theater production of Rodgers And Hammerstein’s immortal favourite. First of all, someone who’s probably more closely associated with a police uniform than anything else, in Lisa McCune, as Ensign Nellie Forbush, the American object of affection for French widower, Emile De Becque (Teddy Tahu Rhodes). But that is to sell the four-time Gold Logie-winner short. In fact, McCune began her career, at 15, as Dorothy, in The Wizard Of Oz, so her musical credentials then were, as it turns out, a foretoken of the full circle her resume has taken.

To put McCune alongside the booming baritone of Rhodes was to tempt fate, if not court disaster, given the likely vocal disparities. But McCune’s voice, while by no means flawless, is well beyond competent. In fact, she sings quite sweetly and characterfully throughout, with nary a falter. In fact, in many ways, hers is a much more natural voice for a musical of this nature than Rhodes’; somehow the technical perfection of the latter tends to compromise ‘humanity’, as superlative as it may be.

Other surprise celebrities include Kate Ceberano, as the savvy Bloody Mary, and Eddie Perfect, as Luther Billis, who also has eyes for Forbush.

I have to say all sounded better after intermission. Ceberano’s always attractive voice sounded uncharacteristically constricted to begin with; mind you, even for a performer as distinguished and experienced as she, stepping onto an OA stage must’ve been quite a leap. On the strength of the first half, I was unconvinced of her vocal suitability for the role, but the second redeemed her entirely and shiningly, as well as director Bartlett Sher’s casting decisions. Thoroughly consistent though (and somewhat surprising, given she’s first and foremost a singer) was her engaging theatricality. Audience reaction was uninhibited; it was clear they were impressed.

I probably harboured similar doubts about Perfect’s relativity. Certainly, his rasping, hard-edged tone, borne of the throat, starkly contrasts with the operatic singers’ chest voices. For all the presence and imprimatur of these stars, however, it was Lieutenant Joseph Cable’s (Daniel Koek’s) dreamy tenor that stole the show, from where I sat.

Neither Michael Yeargan’s sets, Donald Holder’s lighting, or Scott Lehrer’s sound really came into their own until late in the show, either. Up until a certain point, I found all of those more than a little predictable and pedestrian; probably a case of either (or both) the Lincoln Center or OA treading a conservative line in deference to the demographics and psychographics of the market it surmised. There’s plenty of pragmatic argument that can be advanced in favour of such considerations, but I would’ve like to have seen the odd rabbit, perhaps, pulled out of the odd hat.

Chris Gattelli’s choreography is fun, energetic, spectacular and of classic on-Broadway quality.

The supporting cast deserves mention, across the board, but suffice it for me to single out, for now, the collective chorus of sailors: Andrew Broadbent, Andrew Conaghan, David Denis, Michael Hart, Jordan Holtam, Nicholas Jones, Lyndon Keenan, Todd Keys, Michael Lindner, Sam Marks, Glen Oliver, Nhlanhla Phewa, Tod Strike and Jeff Teale. They proved quintessentially fine-fettled, one and all. Celina Yuen both convinced and charmed as the ironically demure Liat (given she’s Mary’s daughter). Rowan Witt was comical as the Professor; John Xintavelonis characterful as Stewpot. The nurses (Natalie Alexopoulos, Caitlin Berry, Erin James, Elise McCann, Danielle O’Malley and head nurse, Marika Aubrey) were, blow-for-blow, every inch as lusty as the marines who coveted them.

In the pit, everything ran like a well-oiled machine, under the graceful baton of Andrew Greene (a performance almost worth watching on its own), which tends, at the same time, to pay homage to Ted Sperling’s musical supervision and Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestrations.

Eddie Perfect and the cast of South Pacific | Opera Theatre

But what of the musical itself? How does it hold up? Well, its all too easy to be cynical and write off South Pacific as an inconsequential love story, but the fact is R & H make something of an earnest attempt to, at the very least, touch on some serious issues. De Becque has a ‘coloured’ servant. He being of French extraction and thus alluding to the great colonial powers has poignancy, for it reminds us of slavery. Forbush is OK with Henry as a butler, but has trouble accepting the fact that De Becque’s deceased wife was and children are of darker hue. Her prejudice glares at us, even through the lightness of the musical genre. This is, in fact, almost radical.

Happily, too, Sher hasn’t resiled from this. If anything, he seems to have worked to highlight it. At least Nellie is upfront abut her racism; it’s more than most manage. (Still, if I’d been Emile, I would’ve asked that girl right out of my hair there and then.)

To begin with, De Becque conscientiously objects to joining the Americans’ war. This inspires all kinds of debate. On the one hand, his pacifism is to be admired, as his individualism, in not succumbing to the ignominy and bastardry inflicted upon ‘cowards’. One might also harbour some admiration for his lack of nationalistic fervour: he feel he owes France nothing, it seems. On the other hand, is it moral to let a mass-murderous tyrant like Hitler off the hook, on the basis of such principles, or are there higher ones? Is one’s own life worth risking, or even sacrificing, in such circumstances? In more personal terms, is his escape from his country of birth a courageous break with the past, or quite the opposite?

But at least De Becque is willing to take risks with his heart. Nellie is more reticent and pragmatic.

Just as happened in the Vietnam war, morality, ethics and love become inscrutable under pressure. On this otherwise isolated South Pacific islet, barely resisting the threat of Japanese invasion, Mary has to make hay while the sun shines, which includes effectively hocking her daughter to the highest bidder or, if not, at least a decent prospect. Her daughter seems either complicit or just resigned to this fate. It’s another demonstration of the pecking order of races and nationalities. These islanders are low down the totem pole, or food chain, compared with the big imperial powers.

Billis, as the underdog, rails against imposed authority and chalks one up for battlers and downtroddens everywhere. Sher seems to have made a conscious decision to bring this to the fore, as well. And Perfect reinvents Billis as a palpably sympathetic character. On the lighter side, his turn in the island follies, with oversized coconut-shell bra, would’ve got a gong in any gang or drag show.

In the wash-up, McCune will, I trust, win accolades. Which by rights should shore up a long and prosperous career on the musical stage for years to come. (There’s still nothing like a dame, after all.) Rhodes can’t fail, on any level, to be impressive. And doesn’t. Perfect is admirable for his fearless extension of himself. He seems to be always challenging his own limits and boundaries, to the point where he’ll soon have none of which to speak. Ceberano’s appearance begs the question, ‘where’ve you been, Kate?’ But, again, the is Daniel Koek’s show, as much as anybody’s.

You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught studs out as a dramatic highlight, underscoring, as it does, the mendacity of bigotry. In the early ’50s, just a few years after the show’s original debut, it wasn’t only deemed controversial and indecent, but pro-Communist. In Georgia it was banned. We have travelled some distance, haven’t we?

Even if you a strip away all the political potency of the show and the eclectic cast (it’s so refreshing to see other than ‘the usual suspects’ front-and-centre), you’re still left with wonderful songs. Some Enchanted Evening can ensure just that, on its own behalf. Especially when sung so spine-tinglingly well.

South Pacific is a hit. Again.

The details: South Pacific plays the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House until September 9 — tickets on the company website. A Melbourne season at the Princess Theatre opens on September 13 — tickets via Ticketmaster.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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