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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Rodgers and Hammerstein, South Pacific:
Grange Park Opera, 3rd July 2005 (H-T W)

Operettas border on triviality, kitsch and sentimentality. They always have a happy ending, even if it comes right out of the blue. The tunes are usually quite consumer friendly; some are brilliant and captivate the ear, others are easily forgotten the moment the curtain comes down. It is all entertainment and, when done well, it can indeed be quite entertaining. The musical, originally an American invention, is its successor. By now, it has conquered more or less the entire world. In the beginning, this light hearted mixture of songs, dance and spoken word was preoccupied with American day to day life; nowadays any story can be turned into a musical as long as it follows certain clichés and trusted recipes.


The composer Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and the librettist Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) were one of the first extremely successful teams to turn the American way of life in to musicals. This season, Grange Park Opera had a try with their musical “South Pacific”, premiered in New York in 1949. It could not have been more successful. This production by Craig Revel Horwood (also responsible for the effective choreography) proved that a well-drafted musical does not need stage and lighting effects to work. It only needs taste, a cast of highly efficient singer-actors and a simple, but effective design (Francis O’Connor). He created a second stage for the more intimate scenes, a boat-truck, which moved forwards and backwards disappearing behind the back-drop, while the entire stage could be used for the big ensemble scenes. In the first act the stage is dominated by a huge palm tree with the island Bali Ha’i in the distance; in the turbulent second act the full moon takes centre stage lighting the exuberant Thanksgiving Folies as well as the sudden outbreak of war hostilities, the loss of loved ones and an unexpected reunion – the Happy End.


The story is simple. It all takes place on a South Pacific island during the Second World War. The American Navy is waiting for the confrontation with Japanese war ships. But as nothing is happening, everybody is bored. The attractive navy nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush (Eliza Lumley) visits the plantation owner Emile de Beque for tea. They instantly fall in love with each other. Meanwhile, a high ranking officer has the idea to send Lt.Joseph Cable (Matt Rawle) and, if he agrees, Emile de Beque, who knows all the islands well, to a close by Japanese island, to watch for enemy ships and to convey this information to American pilots. De Beque refuses having found the woman of his dreams. But when Nellie learns that the two little boys, who are constantly around Emile, are his children and that he was married before to a local woman, who had died, she suddenly decides against Emile. Together with Lt. Joseph Cable the desperate Emile finally takes on the dangerous mission. It is successful, but they are discovered and Cable dies, while nobody knows the whereabouts of Emile. Nellie in the belief that she has thrown away her moment of true love, goes to Emile’s house to care for the children, but suddenly Emile appears and they fall in each other’s arms.


The success of this production is based entirely on the ideal casting of all parts, but in particular of Nellie and Emile, and also on the incredible taste with which the ensemble scenes for all the soldiers, nurses and locals were handled. They could have easily gone over the top. Everything was directed with an eye for detail leaving enough space for humour, temperament and atmosphere. “The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting…..”, the words of James A. Michener in  his “Tales of the South Pacific”, on which the musical is based, makes the whole story not only possible, but also convincing. The pretty and so versatile Eliza Lumley acted and sang the navy nurse from Little Rock in Arkansas, who had only joined the Navy to see what the world was like outside Little Rock, in a perfect American manner. It was only natural for her to fall in love with this elegant and warm French gentleman, whom Michael Cormick impersonated with such perfection. Finally, I have to mention the full-blooded Nicola Hughes as the local Tonkines trafficker Bloody Mary. Having never come across “South Pacific” before I was astonished how many of the songs I knew. The music has indeed already become part of the Anglo-Saxon heritage and it is thanks to the conductor Richard Balcombe that it came across with so much delicacy and charm. Congratulations to Grange Park Opera.


Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt   

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)