You’ve got to have a dream

On Saturday with D to see South Pacific.

Undeniably, Opera Australia has a hit on its hands. I checked the website: many of the remaining performances are totally sold out (even if we know that does not actually mean totally) and the others have at most a handful of seats left. I can understand why they have yielded to the temptation to bring it back for 6 weeks next year.

I still regret that this is at the expense of two months’ worth of actual opera.

That really focuses attention on what the difficulty is with an opera company staging a musical. A musical put on by an opera company is to operas as Indian Mynahs are to other birds: it doesn’t run in repertoire and so it forces operas out of their habitat. It would be great if South Pacific could be put on somewhere other than the Opera Theatre (as My Fair Lady was when its run was extended), but there is a shortage of suitable venues in Sydney. South Pacific presumably wasn’t sufficiently self-evidently a sure thing far enough in advance for it to supplant or nudge aside either The Addams Family which starts at the Capitol next March, or The Lion King, slated to open in December 2013.

Unfortunately, it’s not practical to have some operas scheduled on standby against the possibility that The Addams Family flops and South Pacific could move to the Capitol.

The production is totally bought in – you can see it in its entirety on Youtube (search for SP and Lincoln Center and you’ll find it soon enough). Opera Australia’s contribution is limited to the orchestra (but not its chorus), its time-slot in the Opera Theatre, its subscriber base as a starting point for the audience and bearing the risk of the Sydney season. I’d say the orchestra (which by modern musical standards is luscious) is the least critical of these though it is the one distinctive element: OA is putting up a 33-piece band whereas other mountings of this production all seem to be confined to 25.

But enough business analysis.

The staging is very effective. With the exception of a stage which slides out over the customized-at-front orchestra pit, the scene changes are mostly worked by fairly simple sets which swoop down from the fly tower. The stage for the second-act-opening show-within-a-show is rolled in on castors. In his review, Bryce Hallett puts it rather neatly when he says:

In almost every sense the deftness of the staging matches the musical’s pithy and effective characterisation, and fluent score. It also allows room for the imagination and, of course, for the suspension of disbelief.

Certainly, just as in some operas, a certain amount of suspension is required. Who would have thought that Princeton-educated Lieutenant Cable and French plantation-manager Emile De Becque, inserted by submarine as spotters on a Japanese-held island, would court detection by transmitting their messages, not even in morse code, but totally en clair with a microphone of sufficient sensitivity to even pick up background shooting and other noises? And who would have thought that ordinary sailors would have been told the source of the intelligence (“the Frenchman”) behind their sudden wave of military successes?

If you stop and think a little more (and it doesn’t take much) you will need to brush aside a dollop of Orientalism-brand exoticism – not that the show makes very clear distinctions between the indigenous inhabitants of the island and the shipped-in (just as with Indians to Fiji) “Tonkinese” labourers. The musical is famous for its “message” about/against racism (“You’ve got to be carefully taught” – though I’m not sure that I agree that the teaching need be careful). Cable, who sings the song, is motivated by the reception he imagines his new-found Island love, Liat (who doesn’t even get to sing, mind you) would get back home in Philadelphia if he were to marry her and take her there. He then dies in combat. That conveniently delivers him from the risk that he would have done a Pinkerton once the time came.

For that matter, running away to become a plantation manager in a colony seems a strange career path in social justice for a man like Emile de Becque – forced years ago to leave France after killing (in self-defence) a hated local tyrant in his (conveniently close to the sea) home village back in France.

There are a few nice touches in the production catering to our own times. My own little favourite was the hint (well, more than a hint in my opinion, but maybe less than one to members of the audience less sensitive to such questions) that the female officer in charge of the nurses was a lesbian.

The production is of course amplified. It’s done well but it’s problematic for a musical written in the pre-amplification era. That’s most obvious for Teddy Tahu Rhodes, taking the “opera-singer” role of de Becque. At first I thought it was just a matter of the volume to which he was amplified, which seemed overpowering, but I would be surprised if they couldn’t have got that right if that was really the issue. I think the difficulty is that his vocal production already has such in-built amplification that there is a strange kind of overkill when the electronics also kick in.

On the other hand, no amount of amplification can give meat to a voice which lacks it. “Australia’s sweetheart,” Lisa McCune, has a light voice. While this was fine for “Wash that man,” and passable for “Cock-eyed optimist” McCune just couldn’t vocally fill out “I’m in love with a wonderful guy” or the belty bits of “Honey Bun” (in the second half). I expect most of the audienced loved her and I suppose she is not to be blamed if it is apparently compulsory to star a soapie identity to get the bums on seats. Her acting was fine, if a little deficient in the plot-crucial Southern accent.

Teddy was great – amplification issues aside. It was always going to be the acting rather than the singing that was a challenge for him. I’d seen him on the monitors from the foyer earlier in the run and based on that very imperfect impression, I think he has relaxed into the role, French accent aside.

I don’t really want to do a roll call of the whole cast, because I’m not a critic. If I say nothing in particular about Eddie Perfect that doesn’t mean that I don’t think he did a good job as Luther – who is a kind of comic Milo-Minderbinder character.

Still, I do want to save a special word of praise for Daniel Koek as Cable and Kate Ceberano as Bloody Mary, the Tonkinese “Little Buttercup” to the sailors who panders her daughter to Cable. Ceberano is known to all. Koek, a South Australian Opera young artist of the early years of this century who has since made a career in the UK in musical theatre, including the London and UK run of this show (he is up to his 400th performance of the role) was not, at least to me (but see here). Koek’s big number was “Younger Than Springtime” a dose of concentrated lyricism (tenorial, to boot) which stood out against the more popular-Broadway-style foil of the rest of the show. Cerberano’s performance of “Happy Talk” poignantly mixed sweetness and slyness in a way which was utterly distinctive. For me these were the two most captivating songs in the show.

I read somewhere the poetic suggestion that when the audience (including Mr Menzies) left the first Australian production in 1952 they were probably all humming/whistling “There is nothing like a dame.” Maybe D and I are not the most fertile ground for that song to take root. It was “Happy Talk” that we found ourselves singing, on Sunday afternoon, as we clambered round Oatley Park in the company of two good lesbian friends.

2 Responses to “You’ve got to have a dream”

  1. Victor Says:

    I see I’m not the only one who found Tahu Rhodes’ amplification overpowering.

  2. The King and I and I | Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] South Pacific was much better. […]

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