South Pacific. Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan. Directed by Janet Tweedie. Queanbeyan Players, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre. Until June 11. Bookings: 6285 6290 or theq.net.au
South Pacific is a strange and romantic piece, loosely adapted from James A. Michener's rather darker Tales of the South Pacific.
On an island that's clearly a World War II backwater for the American naval personnel there, nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush (Ellen Scott) falls for an older man, the mysterious French planter Emile de Becque (Michael Moore). Meanwhile new arrival Lieutenant Joe Cable (Anthony Simeonovic) is drawn into a relationship with Liat (Jadziah Oakes), daughter of Tonkinese trader Bloody Mary (Tina Robinson). But Nellie from Little Rock does not know that Emile has two children by a now-dead Polynesian wife. And Joe Cable finds it impossible to cross race lines by actually marrying Liat.
Strong themes for a musical that came out of the late 1940s.
There's charm in much of this production. Scott is a bright and breezy Nellie, and Moore has dignity and some humour as Emile. They sing well and team well together as a couple. As Emile's children Jerome and Ngana, Luka Sostarko and Sabine Zen are warmly likeable, especially in their signature number, Dites-moi.
Andrew Macmillan's Billis is a likeable lanky rogue who wars with Bloody Mary and cannot be contained by exasperated officers, Captain George Brackett (Joseph McGrail-Bateup) and Commander William Harbison (Peter Hoban). They'd all be right at home in M*A*S*H*.
Robinson catches something of Bloody Mary's devious nature and her calculating desire for her daughter's advancement via marriage to a rich foreigner. Oakes is a gentle Liat and Simeonovic brings a touch of desperation to Cable's predicament.
But the depths of feeling and atmosphere possible are somewhat compromised by the production's geniality. Nellie's racism, Billis' and Bloody Mary's less-than-honest trading deals and Emile's past could use a sharper, more realistic touch. Emile might sing Some Enchanted Evening but underlying that is a man who has killed another (albeit for good reasons). There's a dangerousness about these characters that sharpens the romance. And the song Bali Ha'i is a dangerously magnificent hymn to the call of the unknown that ought to stop the show, just as it stops young Joe Cable.
Even Nellie's hair washing appears to be done without the real water that fascinated me as a child at the first Sydney production around 1952. The technical and design problems of South Pacific are not imaginary but they call for defter solutions, smoother lighting and fewer gaps in the action while the set is being changed.
However, it's a show that's hard to resist and the songs, supported by musical director Jenna Hinton and an excellent orchestra, are enduring. Go and (quietly) sing along.