MISS SAIGON AT THE PRINCE EDWARD THEATRE, LONDON
Theatre Run: Continuing
Performance Reviewed: Thursday 31 July 2014
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
‘Out with the new and in with the old’ seems to be the current dominant ideology pervading the West End at the moment, as even new productions by the industries’ heaviest hitters flounder whilst revivals and re-imaginings wade in over their corpses to rapturous reception and unprecedented box office (this show supposedly broke London pre-order ticket records). A trifle melodramatic an opening, perhaps, but one that is both true and quite tonally fitting for Cameron Mackintosh’s lavish, celebrated resurrection of the mawkish, histrionic yet spectacular Miss Saigon. Lloyd-Webber and Rice recently brought us the likes of Stephen Ward and From Here To Eternity respectively, and London even dipped its toe into the mass mass market with Harry Hill and Simon Cowell X-Factor pastiche vehicle I Can’t Sing. An ecclectic and diverse musical trifecta, yet all three suffered poor sales and abrupt, early closure, and in their place we have seen West End return announcements for the likes of Cats, Evita and, of course, Saigon.
It’s a prudent point, for so much of the Saigon hype and hyperbole seems grounded around a heady mix of nostalgia and celebratory adoration. Here we have a revival of a show that in regards to it’s core narrative actually plays surprisingly dated in execution, which seems jarring given that it was, in the first place, an adaptation of Puccini’s timeless Madame Butterfly. The core essence of its tale - a young American marine falls for an orphaned prostitute in Saigon as the Vietnam war draws to its close - lays down the doomed romance trope with sincerity and promise, and the political conflict that backdrops the affair offers a weighty tease of tragedy and troubled waters ahead.
But it’s in the shows’ second Act where Saigon seems to stumble, meandering into maudlin soap opera realms of circumstance and obstacles, permeating a distinctly 80’s approach to narrative. It is probably not a good sign when watching such a celebrated a musical that one is reminded of the likes of Dynasty or Dallas. Does the troubled marine Chris, now back in the States and married, face the reality of his tryst with prostitute Kim? Does he tell his wife of the brief romance which still disturbs his sleep at night? Scenes of bedroom angst and parental responsibility one line away from a phone call to the CSA seem a bit of a comedown after the emotionally charged and politically fuelled opening hour. Schönberg himself describes the show as ‘a simple story about simple people totally torn apart’, but such simplicity relies heavily on execution, and thus can age poorly, and it’s difficult to not yearn for a little more meat on Saigon’s narrative bones bones, particularly towards the end.
This is made starkly apparent in Act II’s most powerful scene - the iconic flasbhack sequence to a helicopter extraction during the City’s forced evacuation - which, when dipping back into the Vietnamese conflict and more fraught time period, instantly becomes more involving. And whilst the show’s denouement seems signposted relatively early on, it still seems disappointingly detached from the bigger picture, awkwardly abrupt and somewhat inconsequential to the events that have preceeded it and an overly taxed milking of the melodramatic tone that is prominent throughout. This will be defended by many, no doubt, as being the entire raison d’etre of the show; a character piece centred on it’s ill-fated romance and not the broader scope of Schönberg’s other magnum opus, Les Miserables, but even taking this into consideration, Saigon’s tale and execution are undeniably old hat.
But make no mistake - I enjoyed Miss Saigon. Pushing it’s storytelling foibles aside, it is a grandiose, lavish production that is as extravagant and impressive as anything you will see on the West End, with production values through the roof and the talent on display in a similar stratosphere. The aforementioned helicopter scene, for instance, continues to be deservedly championed, but there are a whole slew of set pieces and moments that are equally impressive by dint of stunning artistic, staging and lighting design and performances. The trajectory of ‘The American Dream’, one of the show’s climactic stylistic numbers, is a dazzling synergy of all of these, and up there with the most winning, impressive and slickly executed musical theatre sequences I’ve had the pleasure of watching. If you can take the moping story as it is, this is a standard and quality of musical theatre that across the board is executed to an extraordinary level of polish and finesse. And whilst it’s numbers and showtunes are rarely amongst Schönberg or Boublil’s best, there are highlights to be sure, from the balladic power of ‘Movie in my Mind’ to the gospel stylings of the stirring, moving ‘Bui Doi’ (torn from the stage by a thunderous Hugh Maynard) even if the latter, like so much of Miss Saigon, seems a little overwrought and ripe for parody by today’s standards where shows the likes of The Book of Mormon exist.
Jon Jon Briones is owed a huge deal of credit for puncturing the sombre tone of the show with such relish and mischief as The Engineer - Saigon’s half-Vietnamese, half-French resident pimp whose fate is intertwined with that of Kim and Chris, often due to his own scheming and intervention. It’s a delicious role that Briones judges expertly, with the audience in his pocket throughout - wisely sacrificing a showier, more flamboyant take in favour of character work that is as wonderfully subtle as it is irrepressibly charismatic. Newcomer Eva Noblezada makes her professional debut as Kim, yet her soaring, crisp vocals and sincere performance belie her relative inexperience and mark her out as a surefire theatre star in the making. Tamsin Carroll does an admirable job of making Ellen, Chris’s American wife, a sympathetic and likeable figure, worthy praise given the relatively underwritten nature of the role and the fact her very character’s existence could easily be a figure of audience scorn and derision.
Philippines music star Rachelle Ann Go dominates the stage and sets the standard early on during her brief but memorable appearance as stripper Gigi (giving an intense performance reminiscent of Gong Li in Memories of a Geisha) and offering blisteringly strong vocals during her portion of 'Movie in My Mind'. Kwang-Ho Hong is a particularly authoritative presence as scorned suitor Thuy in both performance and vocals, belting with strength and resonance and giving a steely, impressive turn. Finally, in the performance reviewed, Chris understudy Niall Sheehy (formerly a finalist on ITV’s 2012 talent search Superstar) did a worthy, admirable job with the role, tapping into the frustration and dichotomy of the character with gravelly sincerity, and everything seen and heard of principle Chris Alistair Brammer (whom most will see) is even further impressive.
So does this revival of Miss Saigon deserve to be hoovering up the sales and seats of fallen new shows and ideas in the way that it has? It’s an intriguing question, and touches upon the notion that the wider musical theatre audience tends to rest on the familiar and repeat rather than the diversified and original. It certainly accounts for the fanaticism amongst shows such as Saigon, Wicked, Les Mis etc. where fans will return to see the show ad infinitum whilst the likes of From Here to Eternity played to nigh-empty auditoriums. And whilst Miss Saigon can’t quite hold a candle to the likes of Les Mis in particular, there is a lot to be said for such a level of interest, fandom and adoration. And even though Saigon’s approach to story and character haven’t aged superbly well, and there is an overall cheesiness and melodrama to its approach, it is still nonetheless a big, beautiful, stunning treat that is at the apex of the kind of artistic, visual and sensory bedazzlement the West End can boast. And when all is said and done, is the razzle dazzle, spectacle and escapism not the real reason we love the musicals? If so, Miss Saigon is the Occam’s Razor of musical theatre; the simplest approach seeming to work the best, and if not quite a five star musical, then nonetheless an extravagant, sumptuous five star experience indeed.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * (4 out of 5 Stars)
+ One of the most lavish and spectacular shows in the West End
+ Briones dominates the show with effortless charisma
+ Noblezada, Hong and Go are outstanding
+ Littered with memorable set pieces and sequences
+ That helicopter sequence
+ Dazzling set, lighting, dance and costume design
- Feels strangely dated in narrative execution
- Tiptoes perilously close to parody with its maudlin and melodrama in places
MISS SAIGON is running at the Prince Edward Theatre, London, and booking up until 25th April 2015.
Alternatively, call the Box Office directly on 0844 482 5155 now to book your tickets!
Press tickets for this performance of Miss Saigon were provided courtesy of Raw PR. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.