There must be a reason why I have never wanted to see Miss Saigon. Perhaps because I have been brought up on Puccini’s opera Madam Butterfly, in turn based on a late Victorian French novel Madame Chrysantheme.
Now, having been completely delighted by the show at Wales Millennium Centre I have been re-educated, my brain is thoroughly washed of any previous misgivings.
This is the finest large-scale musical show I have seen and it succeeds on virtually every level. The only fault was the diction or sound amplification particularly in the first half of the show when it was impossible to make out some of the lyrics sung by one or two performers. I will be taking to the internet to find the lyrics to see what I was missing. This is, however, a common problem whether musical theatre or opera.
The iconic helicopter scene
What particularly succeeds in this touring production is the feeling that nothing has been scrimped or squeezed to get the show on the road. It is lavish, it is big, it is bold and even when you know what is coming (certain scenes are iconic) they impress, in fact, they exceed all expectation. To use that corny expression, this show has the wow factor.
It can focus in on the personal, the intimate, the domestic, while presenting a vast sweeping canvas of society and history and, then, grasps universal themes that transcend the period and geography of the work.
This is, of course, the triumph of the creative team, original author Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, the result being, in my humble view, infinitely more successful than Les Miserables which is limited to its period. Yet what makes this show genuinely unmissable is the triumph of staging. This is a Cameron Mackintosh production par excellence.
Zoe Doano and Ashley Gilmour
There have been many singer-actors who have taken the roles in Miss Saigon and I am pleased not to be able to make comparisons. The five principal roles of Kim, Chris, the Engineer, John and Thuy are performed with consummate acting skills, empathy and vocal appeal. As with the Puccini opera on which the show is based, there are roles which are more appealing to an audience and in the opera it is common for the American seducer to be given panto style boos. Here he is portrayed as a more rounded person as the GI Chris, sung with strength and gentleness in equal measure by Ashley Gilmour, and does evoke some sympathy.
In contrast, the role of the Engineer, a much smaller role in Puccini, is cheered by audiences even though he is without doubt the most odious (although totally understandably) character in the show. Red Concepcion gives a breath-taking performance, a battery pack of power, comedic and vile yet never to be hated. The show-stopper The American Dream was outstanding.
Ashley Gilmour and Sooha Kim
The corresponding character to John in Madam Butterfly is one-dimensional, but here he travels from being a hard-nosed soldier, drinking and womanising with the best of them to a moral crusader for the children of these wartime sexual liaisons. I am not convinced his sympathies extend to the women literally screwed over. Ryan O’Gorman has the richest singing voice in the male cast and I look forward to hearing him in other singing roles.
Thuy is a huge character in Miss Saigon and the most difficult to quantify. He is a dedicated anti-American fighter, fiercely protective of tradition and appalled by Kim’s love for the Capitalist. Yet, unlike the Madam Butterfly character who tries to bring that young victim back to reality having been abandoned by another Yank, he is clearly in love with the girl and cannot abandon the quest to bring her back to him. I had as much sympathy for Gerald Santos’ intoxicating performance of the young man as a victim of the horrific war and political regimes as I did for Kim. Again, this is a singer who I will look out for elsewhere.
Kim is perhaps the most one-dimensional character of the musical, although that is not to denigrate either the role not what it represents. She has suffered horrors and unspeakable misery, she seeks love and security and, when she has a baby, protection for the child. Again, she is a better drawn character than in the opera as she had a greater sense of reality, what is required to survive, although she retains that belief in love and commitment which dooms both characters. A tear-jerker of a performance from Sooha Kim is underlined by strong vocal ability and sharpness of characterisation.
Zoë Doano has the difficult role of Ellen, the American wife and she performs this with sympathy and elegance.
But this is a big production show and the ensemble is both large, enthusiastic and accomplished with lots of smaller roles vital to the success of the work, whether the women (and men) working in the bars of Saigon and Bangkok to the other American and Vietnamese soldiers and civilians whose lives are swept up and largely destroyed by this clash of political and economic ideologies, fought out in south-east Asia.
Above all of this is the stunning production from designers Totie Driver and Matt Kinley. The set creates the different tableaux of the story; the sleazy bar, the back streets of Saigon, the doomed US Embassy, the show piece parade grounds for military/political spectacle. The movement of scenery is slick, the lighting and stage effects powerful and faultless and the show’s narrative is accomplished seamlessly.
The songs are exquisite and orchestration a masterpiece. From pounding, quite frightening marching music to the most lyrical of ballads and love duets, this is a powerhouse of composition and playing.
The ticket prices might be high but are, of course, nothing compared with West End (and some pop concert or sports event prices) but, on this occasion, you will be getting world-class entertainment.
The American Dream
I didn’t even mention the helicopter. It too will just blow you away.