BWW Review: MISS SAIGON at ARTS Theatre
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 9th May 2019.
Following their huge success with Les Misérables, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, inspired by a magazine photograph that Schönberg saw, went on to write Miss Saigon, an updated musical version of Giacomo Puccini's tragic opera, Madama Butterfly, transferring it from Japan to Vietnam. Like Les Misérables, it was translated from the original French version. Richard Maltby Jr. joined Boublil in writing the lyrics. The music is, unmistakably, from the same composer.
Unlike the earlier work, though, it doesn't send you out whistling or humming vast swathes of unforgettable tunes and stirring anthems. There are no very catchy numbers, like Master of the House, At the End of the Day, I Dreamed a Dream, Do You Hear the People Sing, or the haunting, Castle on a Cloud. A few short phrases from The Heat is on in Saigon, The Movie in My Mind, The Last Night of the World, and The American Dream might stick in the mind for a short while. Where the music carried the story in their first musical, here, the story carries the music.
This production, for the Metropolitan Musical Theatre Company, is directed by Ben Saunders, who also designed the impressive sets, with musical director, Jillian Gulliver, and choreographer, Selena Britz. The action is set in Saigon, in 1975, just before it fell to the North Vietnamese Communists, and three years later in Ho Chi Minh City, the renamed Saigon, and in Bangkok. Written in 1989, that makes the musical now thirty years old.
Kim is a seventeen-year-old orphan being forced to work at Dreamland, a bar and brothel, run by the unscrupulous French/Vietnamese known as The Engineer. It is to be her first night at the place. Sergeant Christopher Scott, an American GI, is her first customer, paid for by his friend, John, but he falls for her and does a deal with The Engineer for her to become his common law wife. When she was only thirteen, however, she was promised to her cousin, Thuy, who is now with the Communist army, and he tries to claim her and take her from Chris, who drives him off.
The second act takes place three years later. The Engineer, in the hands of the Viet Cong after the fall of Saigon, and having been put through a re-education programme and made to work in the rice paddies, now calls himself Tran Van Dinh, and Thuy, now a commissar, forces him to find Kim for him. Discovering that she has a son by Chris, and that she still loves Chris, Thuy threatens to kill them both, but Kim shoots him dead.
In a flashback, we see how Kim and Chris became separated when the Americans evacuated from Saigon in great haste, leaving many Vietnamese begging at the gates to be admitted in order to go to the US with their lovers.
She and her son, Tam, along with The Engineer, now flee to Thailand, where The Engineer now works at a bar and still thinks that there is a chance that he can get to America and start a new life.
Chris arrives in Bangkok with his American wife, Ellen, to discover that Kim has had his son, who is now three-years-old. His old friend and fellow GI, John, is now a b?i ??i (dust of life, a term used for the children of the war) aid worker, seeking out the children of GIs, and he tries to reconcile Chris, Ellen, and Kim. Realising that Chris is married to an American wife, and that he will not take her to America, Kim shoots herself to force him to take Tam, just as Butterfly had committed seppuku, or hara-kiri, Japanese ritual suicide.
For those who might be interested in relating the main characters to those in Puccini's opera, Kim is, of course, Cio Cio San, known as Butterfly, Chris is Pinkerton, John is Sharpless, The Engineer is Goro, Ellen, the American wife of Chris, is Kate, and Thuy has some elements of both The Bonze and Prince Yamadori.
Elena Amano, who is endearing and has a pleasant voice, plays Kim, but fails to convince as a bar girl and prostitute. Dressed from neck to ankle, while most of the female chorus are in skimpy outfits, doesn't convey that her work in Dreamland is about to be on the frontline, facing a future as a prostitute. For an orphan, plucked from the streets, her outfits are all too pristine and new and the destitution that she is supposed to be enduring throughout the work is not evident.
Admittedly, some of the other bar girls are not entirely convincing, either, in their fuller costuming, interestingly, mostly those of obvious European descent. That, of course, brings up another matter, that of makeup, and the need for dye or a wig to conceal fair hair. If you are going to play a character of another ethnic group, or perhaps of a very different age, or a fantasy character, such as a cat, you should really make an effort to learn about stage makeup.
My own reference when I was in that situation, a number of decades ago, was an excellent book, simply called Stage Makeup, by Richard Corson. It is highly recommended to all aspiring performers. Back then, of course, theatre was seen as a somewhat exclusively European pursuit and finding performers of Asian or African descent in Australia, was rare. That situation has, thankfully, changed enormously since then.
Jared Frost plays Sergeant Chris Scott, conveying the war-weary and disillusioned soldier who finds love, too late. He displays the anguish of the separation and loss, and the later dilemma of finding Kim and their son, with skill and emotional depth.
The real standout in this production is Omkar Nagesh, playing The Engineer, a role that he has played before, to equally great acclaim. He has enormous stage presence and his every appearance is riveting, filled with energy and enthusiasm.
Shane Huang, asThuy, is another performer who commands the stage with every appearance, exuding the power that the character must have to succeed as the representative of the oppressive regime. Tom Dubois, as John Thomas, is also impressive and one can only hope to see more of him in the future, hopefully, in larger roles.
Jemma McCulloch plays Ellen, her singing voice and her authentic acting conveying the mixed emotions superbly. Maria Gabriella Maglahus is notable in her brief moment as Gigi Van Tranh, whom the Engineer announces as the bar's Miss Saigon, his cynical ruse to make patrons pay a premium for her sexual services.
The small orchestra does its best to emulate the large orchestra for which the score was written, although dodgy notes here and there do creep in. The essential helicopter visual is very effective, although I would have liked more clarity in noise of the rotor blades, rather than just a roar. The set, utilising projections of impressionist scenes, is excellent, and well lit by Jason Groves.
All in all this is a very good effort with what is a challenging piece and, no doubt, will please audiences.