Amy Tries Again

South Pacific – a review
January 3, 2013, 2:42 AM
Filed under: Miscellanea

Last night, I went to the opening night of the Brisbane season of South Pacific at QPAC’s Lyric Theatre.  I was the guest of my friend Natalie, who writes about such things for the Brisbane Times, and as I spent most of the show thinking about what I would say if I could review things…well, I decided to write a small review of my own.

Firstly: this is not a show that would be written today.  This tale of WW2 in the pacific islands is a good show, but, for me at least, the 60+ years that it’s been running are very evident.  The pacing (just a little slow), the songs (just a little repetitive) and its non-controversial controversy (more on that later) – maybe the problem is that it isn’t old enough.  Perhaps being considered a museum piece instead of a nostalgic romp would do it good.  You see, it’s almost what I’d expect in a modern musical.  Almost.

That’s not to say the cast members don’t do their best with what they have.  Lisa McCune’s Nellie Forbush sings beautifully, and is appropriately spirited and charming (if perhaps just a little more advanced in years than her on-stage lover’s comments about her youth suggest).  When her character expresses some era-appropriate opinions about – gasp – relationships between people of different races, you could hear the audience’s collective intake of breath.  Australia’s Sweetheart isn’t supposed to say such things. For all the high-kicking servicemen and boogie-woogie nurses, the theme of the show remains overcoming racial prejudice.  Daniel Koek, who performs strongly as Lieutenant Cable, sings ‘You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught’, a song considered quite controversial when the musical first premiered.  And what, exactly, was this controversial song about?  Merely that prejudice is learned.  Well, yes.  For a modern audience, the resolutions made about love and tolerance conquering all aren’t the confronting part.  It’s rather more strange and disconcerting to see likeable leads engaging in the behaviour that leads up to the resolutions in the first place.  I’m not suggesting a re-write.  It is, however, hard to know entirely what to make of this show.

By the way, the rumours about them being an off-stage item are true because a taxi driver told me so last week.

By the way, the rumours about them being an off-stage item are true because a taxi driver told me so last week.

Its age shows elsewhere.  Each song goes on a little too long and is reprised, it seems, at least six times.  Still, upbeat songs like ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’ and ‘There Is Nothing Like A Dame’ are welcome crowd-pleasers, and Gyton Grantley as the entrepreneurial Billis is particularly good fun.  The chorus of nurses is a burlesque enthusiast’s dream come true, and their male counterparts, the servicemen, have an infectious energy that is hard to resist.

Christine Anu’s Bloody Mary is not particularly likeable.  This is a good thing.  I enjoyed not trusting her, and her rendition of ‘Happy Talk’, its upbeat lyrics contrasting with the action onstage, was pleasantly disconcerting.  The subplot involving Bloody Mary’s daughter Liat (Celina Yuen) and Lieutenant Cable could inspire many an undergraduate essay, but actors Yuen and Koek do their best to make it seem as non-creepy as possible.

Whilst I enjoyed Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ performance as love interest Emile de Becque, I felt his performance could have benefited from a slightly less operatic approach.  Although this is an Opera Australia co-production, and he certainly has an extremely impressive voice, I found that some of the lyrics he sang were lost a little in all the grandeur.  I was also somewhat baffled by the decision to have him bald on all promotional material but sporting a wig onstage.

Impressive sets and lighting, smooth transitions and a large, excellent orchestra made sure the production looked (and sounded) the part.  A few items on set did seem a bit…well, wobbly – but then, we were in the third row.  I was surprised to see a microphone wire seemingly dangling, loose, in a shirtless scene when a bit of tape would have solved the problem, but overall the costuming was effective and appropriate.  I particularly enjoyed the costuming for the Thanksgiving concert put on by the servicemen and women, which was made to look like it had been cobbled together out of buckets, netting, old issues of Life magazine and whatever was at hand.  This scene in general was a favourite, but then, I’m a sucker for a play-within-a-play, let alone one with a rotating stage allowing the audience to see what was going on ‘backstage’.  I was also impressed when, in a scene involving water, a character actually got wet!

Singing by the main and ensemble cast was consistently good, and accents were held fairly thoroughly throughout the show, with only the very occasional brief slip into ‘strine for a syllable or two.  Some attempts to bring out the bawdiness that was only implied in the text (for example, the Navy boys mentioning how they missed…companionship) ended up in unnecessary crotch-grabbing and gyration, the overall effect of which was that of Arts Council performers attempting to appeal to schoolkids with the rude bits of Shakespeare.  On an odd note, I was surprised to see only one person smoking – very briefly – onstage.  It seemed unusual to include it there, as while it’s something I’d expect to see in scenes from the 1940s, it didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t there for the rest of the show until someone lit up for about 15 seconds in a musical number.  If it hadn’t happened at all, it’s not something I’d have noticed, but isolated like that, it seemed – well, odd.

Overall, I found this show enjoyable, but preferred the second act to the first.  Naturally, I cried at the ending – it must be stated that the young actors who took the roles of de Becque’s children were absolutely adorable – and went home humming the catchier of the tunes.  Director Bartlett Sher and his creative team have done a good job with a show stuck in a strange in-between state – beloved classic, or museum piece?  Perhaps South Pacific is both.


1 Comment so far
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The performers either must have been very very tired or simply ‘over it’ by the time I saw this wonderful classic i.e. 19/01/13. Half hearted clapping during the show and NO standing ovation at the end indicates it was indeed a lack lustre performance. I was amazed at how much of the audience didn’t clap at all! This…….I believe …… be the height of rudeness. However, as someone who has enjoyed the show in all its genres since a child in the early 60’s and who’s family members worked with the likes of Billie Fowler (Nellie in the Oz stage show in the 50-60’s), I also felt a real level of disappointment with the show given the wonderful reviews I’ve read.
Yes Teddy Rhodes was absolutely wonderful as Emile, despite sounding more and more German than French. Lisa Mc Cune on the other hand had a lovely voice, but her acting performance was the most contrite, obviously rehearsed (likened to a school play) acting I have ever seen. To warm to her character was hopeless. It was as if she was doing everything on Cue and the audience knew it! Nothing about her performance seemed natural. Christina Anu fabulous as Bloody Mary and wished we could have seen more….and whilst some of the scenes were comical and clever, I thought the Tokinese daughter was ordinary in her performance and uninspiring to watch …whilst the same props were overused and less than exciting.
As a an avid show goer, this is the first time I have ever walked out of a show NOT buzzing, singing, humming or raving!!!
My favourite bit was the song ….Honey Bun…The actor was indeed a 101 pounds of fun……….shame he couldn’t show Lisa how to loosen up a little too.

Comment by Tracy Harvey

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