United Kingdom Boublil and Schönberg, Miss Saigon: Companyand Orchestra conducted by Alfonso Casado Trigo. Prince Edward Theatre, London 22.5.2014. (JPr)
Jon Jon Briones: The Engineer
Eva Noblezada: Kim
Alistair Brammer: Chris
Hugh Maynard: John
Tamsin Carroll: Ellen
Kwang-Ho Hong: Thuy
Rachelle Ann Go: Gigi.
Lyrics : Richard Maltby Jr and Alain Boublil
Music: Claude-Michel Schönberg,
Design concept: Adrian Vaux,
Costume design: Andreane Neofitou,
Musical Staging : Bob Avian,
Lighting: Bruno Poet
Projections realised by Luke Halls
There is no better introduction to this 25th Anniversary revival of Miss Saigon than to quote from A A Gill’s programme note about how the musical ‘is an adaptation of Puccini’s 1903 opera Madama Butterfly which is set in an historical moment that even GCSEs have forgotten. It was the second opera based on this subject – the first is by a composer that everyone has forgotten, based on an autobiographical book by a Frenchman, Pierre Loti, called Madame Chrysanthemum – obviously a bad title as Chrysanthemum is a tricky word to fit into a lyric. No one is quite sure how many syllables it has and it only rhymes with mum, bum and dumb. In Puccini’s opera, Pinkerton (who in Saigon becomes Chris) is a villain – not evil but weak, selfish and arrogant … In Miss Saigon Chris is more sympathetic, a victim of events, misunderstanding and luck.’
Madama Butterfly has been accused of Orientalism because of Asian stereotypes and – to be truthful – the same charges could be levelled at Miss Saigon. It however remains a very powerful musical that, because it is sung through, is really a modern opera – even though this now a little ‘played down’ compared to its original London run in the 1980s and 90s which closed after over 4000 performances. If some critics gave the recent revival of The Pajama Game five stars then there are not enough stars for this show that should pack the large Prince Edward Theatre for years to come: in 1989 it was the best musical I had ever seen – and so it remains in 2014!
In case anyone has never encountered this worldwide hit musical before it is set initially in 1975 during the final days leading up to the American evacuation of Saigon and tells the epic story of the relationship between a US Marine Sergeant, Chris, and a young Vietnamese woman, Kim. There is also a gung-ho fellow marine, John, who later becomes a charity worker saving the ‘Bui Doi’ children – the ‘Dust of Life’ – who were the result of liaisons between American serviceman and Vietnamese girls. Crucial to the events that unfold is Kim’s cousin, Thuy, to whom she was promised to at 13, who interrupts her wedding and whom she later kills. Then there is Ellen, Chris’s new American wife; and, finally (you will never forget the wheeling and dealing, ducking and diving) there is Engineer – the owner of a Saigon nightclub called ‘Dreamland’ – who takes the 17-year-old Kim in off the Saigon streets. He is often ever-present throughout the musical and narrates what we see. The Engineer is looking for a way out of Saigon (and later Bangkok) and for him Kim’s child, Tam, provides him, he believes, with all he needs to get him to America. The Engineer is part the MC from Cabaret and – this may seem a little strange to some – part Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. These are the main characters apart from a vast number of ‘showgirls’ (for want of a polite word); all beautiful, pouting, limber, and frequently dancing in their underwear … no chubby ones here – when perhaps there could have been – but there was a man in drag swinging on his pole! Like Madama Butterfly – which despite its historical antecedents represents make-believe Japan – Miss Saigon is the West’s fantasy vision of SE Asia.
I still have things to criticize but it will not make any difference after all this time. Act I is too long and should end on Kim’s deep anguish at shooting Thuy because it is the only way to save her son. There are many splendid songs and some great choruses but few ‘big solo numbers’ that stick in your mind – and what is it with all the rhymes? Rarely will one word at the end of one line fail to be paired with another soon. It begins during the opening number ‘The Heat Is On’ and never disappoints, one example is enough from Kim’s opening words:
‘I’m seventeen, and I’m new here today
The village I come from seems so far away
All of the girls know much more what to say
But I know
I have a heart like the sea
A million dreams are in me’
Perhaps it does not sound quite so prosaic in the original French? The very best moments often are the more intimate ones when two or three characters interact, such as, Kim and Ellen duetting for ‘I Still Believe’ even though each is on a different continent. The legacy of Miss Saigon’smemorable music is how much it ‘influenced’ – and I have chosen this word very carefully – at least one stirring anthem from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1993 Sunset Boulevard.
This performance of Miss Saigon took an inexorable grip on my emotions and I was willing for Kim and Chris to have a happier ending. The scenery, the atmospheric lighting, the wonderful music (played here by one of the best West End musical orchestras I have ever heard) and the more-than-adequate singing (for a West End musical) made this another unforgettable night with Miss Saigon. It doesn’t actually need the helicopter (generated by visual and ‘real’ effects) that takes off with Chris on board leaving Kim behind in emotional turmoil and amidst the chaos of the fall of the city: the show would be a spectacular enough without it.
Overshadowing everyone on stage is Jon Jon Briones in the role of The Engineer. It is a role that has taken this charismatic and talent actor all over the world. His sly grins, cheeky asides, facial expressions and obvious enthusiasm for a part he has sung innumerable times brings it to life. He was in the original London cast when in less enlightened times Jonathan Pryce was the first Engineer though he later sang it during the final year of its initial run. It is impossible to imagine any other actor-singer in the role as Jon Jon Briones lights up the stage like a true star whenever the lights are on him. His ‘The America Dream’ number get the full Las Vegas treatment and is just the last of a several light-hearted scenes featuring Briones that divert the audience’s minds off the developing tragedy, Here it features plenty of high kicking dancing and the huge head of the Statue Of Liberty that rises to disgorge a seductive blonde in a limousine.
The role of Kim is taken in true ‘star is born’ fashion by the American teenager Eva Noblezada who perfectly portrayed Kim’s vulnerability, her love for Chris and their son, and some totally believable stoicism when faced with adversity. She also sang wonderfully, shining in her solo numbers such as ‘I’d Give My Life For You’ and ‘Sun and Moon’, revealing a secure strong voice. Alistair Brammer was Chris, who finds love with Kim fleetingly in Saigon, he was a little bland as an actor and his voice showed some fragility at one point but he got better towards the end as he convincingly embodied Chris’s moral dilemma when he discovered their brief romance had had consequences. There seemed real chemistry between Kim and Chris and they harmonised very well in ‘This Money’s Yours’ and ‘The Last Night Of The World’, especially.
Peter Polycarpou – one of the saving graces of the current revival of The Pajama Game –created the role of John, Chris’s friend, but here Hugh Maynard soulfully sings ‘Bui Doi’ with almost evangelical rapture. He deserves the ovation he got as it was one of the many highlights of the evening. The experienced Tamsin Carroll was effective as Ellen, whom Chris marries after returning from Vietnam, and her fairly newish song ‘Maybe’ – as she contemplates taking Tam back to America – has a strange Sondheim/Mrs Lovett feel to it. Another genuine discovery is Kwang-Ho Hong (already a star backhome in Korea) who had good stage presence and sang with a resonant voice as Thuy who wants Kim for himself.
Miss Saigon takes its audience on a rollercoaster of emotions during the musical. Smiles, laughter and some fixed grins (because of the exotic racism) with The Engineer, romance with Kim and Chris, and the sadness of the inevitability of Kim parting from her lover and then her son. But it is worth going along for the ride even if you’ve seen it – or Madama Butterfly - before and know what the ending will be. A standing ovation will be a certainty every night I suspect!
For more about Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward Theatre visit http://www.miss-saigon.com/.