Book & Lyrics: Alain Boublil
Music: Claude-Michel Schönberg
Director: Laurence Connor
Reviewer: Scarlet Wildhorn
Hot on the heels of composers Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil’s smash hit musical, Les Misérables, just four years previous, Miss Saigonwas first performed on 1989 and tells the story of a doomed romance between a then 17-year-old Vietnamese woman and an American G.I. It is an epic love story, set during the last days of the Vietnamese War and the traumatic fall of Saigon.
This reimagining of Puccini’s Opera, Madame Butterfly, is a truly sumptuous production deserving of every drop of praise that’s been thrown at it so far. The current touring production will be familiar to those who saw Lawrence Connor’s 2014 West End revival, with much of the staging remaining the same.
The set is as impressive as everything else. Moved by 16 trailers, it is definitely not a ‘lightweight’ set. Inspired by the war photography of the era, designers Totie Driver and Matt Kinley wanted to capture the skeletal world left behind in the wake of the bombings, and boy do they succeed. The Vietnamese bar feels seedy, the American Dream ostentatious and the refugee camp forlorn. And while Kim’s dressing room at the Moulin Rouge is a desperate, tragic place, there are delightful suggestions of hope among the sadness; look out for the Elvis postcards adorning Kim’s mirror.
There are a number of impressive set pieces, including a giant golden head of Ho Chi Minh, a giant Statue of Liberty head, a giant dragon and a Cadillac. But among all this, is a love story, with Bruno Poet’s lighting framing the action to absolute perfection. And, as he points out in the brochure, it is as much about hiding things with darkness and smoke, as it is about directing the light.
There is a very clever staging of Kim’s flashback to ‘that night’ when American troops were evacuated from Vietnam. The embassy walls part to reveal the two polar realities. And there is, of course, the helicopter – possibly one of the most iconic musical theatre set pieces of all time. A symbol of the inhumanity and suffering caused by the war, the ‘Huey’ helicopters were central to ‘Operation Frequent Wind’, the final phase of the evacuation of American civilians and ‘at risk’ Vietnamese from Saigon. More than 7000 people were evacuated by helicopter, but many more were left to fend for themselves. This production succeeds in capturing the panic, terror and heartbreaking hysteria at being left behind in very a raw and visceral manner.
The details in this production are exceptional. Take the costumes for example; they are as authentic as they come. The G.I’s flak jackets and helmets have been worn in real-life combat, while every single one of the straw hats originates from either Vietnam or Thailand.
Sooha Kim as Kim is outstanding. She embodies a certain softness and grace, portraying the perfect balance of vulnerability and strength, ever faithful to Chris and that he will return. Her final scene is heartbreaking, as she fulfils her promise made earlier in the narrative.
Kim shares a wonderful chemistry with Ashley Gilmour as Chris, previously in the ensemble for the West End production. Gilmour provides everything you could want from a compassionate marine; protective, kind, courageous and confident, with vocals that are spot on.
But the loudest applause of the night went to Red Concepción as The Engineer with just the right balance between repulsive and smarmy charm. He is the definition of a character that looks after Number 1; vulgar, greedy and absolutely delicious. He interjects a certain kind of sparkle between all the heartbreak, with one eye always on that elusive American Visa.
Miss Saigon is a spectacular feast for the senses; haunting, beautiful and poignant with soaring music, a set to die for and a killer cast. With a long run, it is most definitely worth getting down to the Hippodrome this season.
Runs until 23 June 2018 | Image: Johan Persson