Tuesday, January 15, 2013


South Pacific by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Lyric Theatre. Stars Lisa McCune, Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Season till January 27.

Believe it or not there’s some who want to wash post-war musical theatre icons, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, right out of their hair.

There seemed to be a certain mood on opening night (among a few) that the most successful Broadway team of the 1940s and ‘50s, composer Rodgers and lyricist Hammerstein, were old-fashioned.


What’s old-fashioned?

On many occasions old-fashioned just happens to be one of the best and most engaging fashions in the world.

Almost everything that happened the day before yesterday is old-fashioned and a lot of it – not all of it – stacks up pretty well.

Writer L.P. Hartley said, ‘the past is a foreign country they do things differently there’, and I’m one of its most dedicated tourists.

If God or the Central Committee for Human Supply – or whoever  runs the ebb and flow of humankind – had given me an option, I would have spent 10 years of each of my three score years and ten in a different century.

That would have given me seven lives in seven magical centuries unless, of course, I was lucky enough to be born in the year of the cat.

I guess that would have given me nine lives.

Ah life as a degustation meal!

One of the most exciting decades to have lived would have been the 1950s when there were more changes happening than at a Victoria Beckham house party.

There was a wealth of forward looking literature, art, movies, plays, shows, design and on top of all that the origins of television and rock ‘n’ roll shaking down a generation.

But on Broadway the dominant musical presence of Rogers and Hammerstein, who had reigned supreme since teaming up to create Oklahoma! in 1943, was grounded in a largely reassuring world of show business stability.

In 17 short years, from 1943 to Hammerstein’s untimely death in 1960 at the age of  65, the duo produced at least five masterpieces (Carousel, The King and I and The Sound of Music among them) which earned them 34 Tony Awards, 15 Oscars, two Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize.

Rodgers & Hammerstein came together in the tumultuous war years – the South Pacific story was played out in early ‘40s and premièred in 1949 – but for me they will be forever associated with the ‘50s.

And I like to travel to the ‘50s in my version of historic tourism as much as anywhere.

The other interesting aside I picked-up – and let’s be clear I am only tackling the dissenters as many first nighters loved the production – was the contrast between petite bird-like Lisa McCune as Nellie Forbush, picking her way through the notes, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ stoic operatic French plantation owner Emile de Becque.

There was a universal nod in Rhodes’ direction and a general acknowledgement that his sublime de Becque ticked all the boxes in what was no less than a towering performance.

The pinnacle of which – as it should be – was Some Enchanted Evening which gave Rhodes the opportunity to shine like the Bethlehem star and was a sure-fire show stopper.

Some thought that McCune was comparatively lightweight – although I am Going to Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair was well received – but then Nellie is from the heartland of small town America Little Rock, Arkansas, with all its lightweight and unenlightened ways.

When Mary Martin was invited to play the original Nellie back in ’49 she agreed on the understanding that she would not have to sing a duet with the operatic giant Ezio Pinza, as she feared he would, musically speaking, blow her away.

I think that the musically contrast, between Nellie and de Becque, is an appropriate metaphor to the cultural differences which go to the core of South Pacific’s inter-racial themes.

The story of two pairs of unlikely mix-race lovers – Nellie and de Becque and Lieutenant Cable (Daniel Koek) and the islander Liat (Celina Yuen) – in the South Pacific at the height of the war was touchy if not controversial in its day.

Hammerstein was under a lot of pressure to cut Cable’s lyric for the song, You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught, in the show’s try-outs because it touched a raw nerve with America’s racially sensitive Broadway audiences.

But Hammerstein was the author who had given the world the ground-breaking musical theatre game-changing Show Boat (along with Jerome Kern) back in 1927.

As lawyer Geoffrey Robertson writes in an essay on the show, and the South Pacific during era, for the program, the number represented why Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted to write the show in the first place.

Robertson actually attributed the quote to author James A. Mitchener who penned the book, Tales of the South Seas, which Rodgers & Hammerstein used as their primary source.

This Australian adaptation of the latest New York production – known as the Lincoln Center Theatre production and the first ever Broadway revival since the 1949 premiere – is generally faithfully to a great musical love affair on all counts.

(Incidentally, The Lincoln production won seven Tony Awards in  2008, compared to  10 for the original show plus a Pulitzer Prize)

In addition to the talents mentioned, Brisbane-born Gyton Grantley (known for playing Carl Williams in Underbelly and TV’s new hit show House Husbands) handles the comic character Luther Bliss with aplomb and Christine Anu is suitably testy as Bloody Mary.

The ensemble – both nurses and Seebees – added theatrical and musical colour to the show and with the likes of John Frost and Opera Australia’s Lyndon Terracini at the production helm the fire proofing is double-glazed.

There’s several more enchanted evening ahead as South Pacific continues at Brisbane’s Lyric Theatre until January 27.

When it comes to presenting musical theatre in Brisbane, there’s nothing like a  name and there’s several impressive ones here.





No comments:

Post a Comment