Book andMusic: Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics: Richard Maltby Jr and Alain Boublil with additional lyrics by Michael Mahler
Director: Laurence Connor
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Everything about this touring production of Miss Saigon is big. The cast is big – nearly forty cast members are named in the programme – the orchestra is big – 15 credited musicians – the sets and set-pieces are big and the themes – love, loyalty, duty – are big. The world events against which it is set are also big. The United States had been embroiled in an essentially local conflict for nearly 20 years and feelings were running high that this unwinnable war was not America’s war, leading to the withdrawal of American personnel and the end of any resistance to the communist north.
Technically Miss Saigon is undoubtedly a triumph – set elements move in and out smoothly transporting us between the seedy glitter of Saigon’s bars and clubs to mean huts to the American embassy. The scene in which Americans are chaotically evacuated from the embassy in a helicopter as locals swarm against the fence trying to be taken too is supremely well-choreographed, viewpoints constantly changing, the only fixed point the despair of those left behind. And the compulsory conformity of Communist life after the withdrawal of the US is well-drawn and chilling even as it is colourful in The Morning of the Dragon, featuring a version of the Dragon Dance.
But as in many huge world events, it is the human stories that are the most telling. And Miss Saigon is also human-scale. Within the confusion, within the chaos, is the advent of something potentially beautiful – the pure love that strikes from nowhere and makes slaves of those affected.
Kim is 17, the new bargirl at Dreamland, when she meets Chris. Unlike many marines, who are intent on a good time, Chris is disenchanted with hedonistic pleasures. His friend John thinks the solution is a good woman and purchases Kim and a room for Chris from the bar owner, the oleaginous Engineer. Thrown together, Chris and Kim fall in love and after going through a wedding ceremony of sorts Chris promises to take Kim back to America with him, much to the despair of Thuy, to whom Kim has been betrothed since they were thirteen.
So how is it that three years later, Kim is hiding with a young son and Chris is screaming Kim’s name in his sleep even as he lies alongside Ellen, his wife. And what will they do when they learn from John’s organisation (that seeks to reunite soldiers with their Vietnamese offspring) that Kim is still alive, still under the spell of the Engineer, still believing herself married, still faithfully waiting?
While the score to Miss Saigon is assuredly superb, it is written so as to support and carry the story. Memorable moments abound – the bargirls singing The Movie in My Mind about their dreams of a better life; the beautiful Sun and Moon duet between Chris and Kim; Kim’s promise to her son, Tam, I’d Give My Life for You. But the showstopper is Kim’s Nightmare – the detail of what happened after Chris and Kim are separated on the day of the evacuation.
Sooha Kim is at the centre as Kim. At the beginning, when she is the nervous seventeen-year-old thrown in at the deep end in Dreamland, her voice has a pleasing fragile, almost metallic, quality, even if its lower registers are sometimes more hesitant. Her growth into the mature young mother confidently awaiting the return of Chris is well-mapped and her voice increases in power and maturity to match. Her simple faith in Chris, while seemingly misplaced, is a beautiful thing itself.
If one were asked to point out the standout voice, that of Ryan O’Gorman’s John would be high on the list. His rendition of Bui Doi, Children of Dust, in which the mission of his company to reunite soldiers and children is powerfully and movingly set out sets hairs standing on end. His transition from hedonistic marine to caring humanitarian is well judged and rather moving.
But the star of the show is Red Concepcion’s Engineer. Always seeking to take advantage of whatever life can offer in whatever circumstances he finds himself in, Concepcion’s mobile face and rolling eyes make for a compulsive villain, one whose melodramatic villainy never strays into panto territory, one whose motives are clear and with whom one can grudgingly sympathise even as he works to manipulate those around him to get his own ends. Maybe his imagined new life in America (for he is planning to accompany Kim and Tam) in The American Dream seems to stall the flow a touch.
It’s difficult to know how to feel about Ashley Gilmour’s Chris. He is clearly smitten after meeting Kim, but later one doesn’t fully get the feeling of how conflicted he must be having decided to start a new life back in America and marry Ellen (Zoë Doano). Doano, on the other hand, makes the most of her limited stage time to ensure we are in no doubt as to where her loyalties lie once she is apprised of the facts – a tough cookie indeed.
Miss Saigon is a powerful statement on how people react and try to make the best of things, how they show their best and worst qualities, how they try to cling to their principles – yes, even the morally fluid Engineer – and is a spectacle worth experiencing while on tour.
Runs until 22 July 2017 and on tour | Image: Michael Le Poer Trench