Review: MISS SAIGON at Folketeatret

Overwhelming and emotionally powerful!

By: Sep. 02, 2023
Review: MISS SAIGON at Folketeatret

For many years, Miss Saigon was celebrated as a masterful work of musical theater. However, it has faced its fair share of criticism for its alleged "political incorrectness" issues since its revival in the West End and on Broadway a few years ago. Terms like "problematic" and "racially stereotypical" have been used to describe it. I respectfully disagree with these criticisms, even though it is crucial the material must be presented culturally authentic, in which this production succeeds where others have failed. It remains a tragic story that has become even more relevant now, given the ongoing horrors of the Ukraine war and numerous heartbreaking situations of refugees in hazardous boats, often left unaided by political bureaucracy, resulting in tragic drownings.

Review: MISS SAIGON at Folketeatret

Written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, featuring lyrics penned by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr, Miss Saigon draws its inspiration from Giacomo Puccini's 1904 opera, "Madama Butterfly," and similarly unfolds a tragic story of an ill-fated affair involving an Asian woman forsaken by her American lover. While preserving the essence of Puccini's story, Miss Saigon is set at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and tells a story of Chris (Sigurd Marthinussen), an American GI who falls for Kim (Catharina Vu), a Vietnamese orphan who works as a bargirl and prostitute for a pimp called The Engineer (Duc Mai-The). As Saigon falls into chaos the couple gets separated.

Years later, he returns to Bangkok with his American wife, Ellen (Sanne Kvitnes), after his friend John (Espen Grjotheim) finds Kim. It's revealed that Kim had Chris' son, Tam, who is known as "bui-doi," meaning 'dust of life.' Bui-doi are children with one American and one Asian parent, often abandoned after the Vietnam War. The Engineer, who escaped with Kim and Tam, hopes to use their situation to achieve his goal of immigrating to the "American Dream."

Review: MISS SAIGON at Folketeatret

Full of new talent
The entire cast exhibits remarkable talent and the casting of this musical has been done remarkably well. Catharina Vu delivers an emotionally powerful performance as Kim, tugging at the heartstrings with her solid portrayal. Her vocals are filled with passion, guiding the audience through a range of emotions, from profound sorrow to unwavering hope and profound love. Likewise, Marthinussen, as her true love Chris, really gets to show both his beautiful voice, as well as a more layered portrayal of the character than I've seen in previous productions. His rendition of “Why God, Why?” is soaring right up to the proscenium of the stage.

Duc Mai-The's Engineer take on roles ranging from a manipulator and opportunist to a survivor who can outlive both the American and Vietnamese counterparts, Uncle Sam and Uncle Ho. This character is a chameleon, devoid of a fixed set of morals, racial identity, nationality, or language. Duc Mai-The also embodies an ominous presence, effortlessly transforming a critical commentary on the greedy nature of the "American Dream" into a captivating performance through his sharp and malevolent wit.

Review: MISS SAIGON at Folketeatret

Full of moments with the supporting cast
The supporting cast all get their time to shine. I was moved to tears by (Gigi) Karen Bernardino’s rendition of “The Movie in my Mind” and likewise by Espen Grjotheim’s act two opening “Bui Doi”. Carl Sohlberg portrayal of Thuy, the man she was bethrown to by her parents, is intense. His voice is strong and his intensity leaves reverberations after the curtain falls. Even if the role is not the largest, I really want to see more of him on Norwegian stages in the years to come.

Sanne Kvitnes has the thankless task of portraying Ellen who, at first glance, it’s hard to engage with since she is the one thing that makes it hard for Kim and Chris to reunite. It has also been hard for the authors to write a suitable song for this character. First it was called “Her or Me”, then revised to “Now That I've Seen Her” and finally replaced with a new song called “Maybe”. I am very pleased with this new song because it gives the Ellen more depth, but in the wrong hands it too can come across as unsympathetic. But Sanne Kvitnes gives the song all the layers it craves, and finally I care for the character. Her voice is strong, vibrant and she really “acts” the song. Bravo!

Clever descisions on every level
Director Guy Unsworth and the rest creative team has really done a great job of clarifying both the action and also making many directorial decisions that both enlighten and make everything much more believable. In particular the scene where Kim has to make a life-changing decision to protect her child, the boat scene in the finale of the first act and the nightmarish circus vision of "The American Dream" left a mark, just to name a few. As simple as the use of a ballon to both symbolize love and loss and death is fantastic.

Superior design
Where the original production used fabric-dominated sets as a floating canvas as a backdrop, David Woodhead's designs look and feel more real. Although London often has many large stage elements that move on their own without assistance, I think that overall this production is more impressive. Jean Chan's costume designs are also rooted in reality, and fits the overall design of the production.

Review: MISS SAIGON at Folketeatret

The importance of the right instruments
Miss Saigon aims to capture the interest of today's audience while carrying them away to the past. It achieves this by incorporating a wide range of unique ethnic musical instruments that weren't typically heard in popular music (at least in the late 80s pop music scene). These distinctive sounds include instruments like the Vietnamese moon guitar, elements inspired by Indonesian music, a three-stringed Japanese guitar, and the eerie Japanese bamboo flute. The goal of the musical score goes beyond simply catering to popular culture; it seeks to envelop the audience in the essence of Vietnam through its musical tapestry. The musical director, Bendik Eide, confidently guides the 15-piece orchestra through the scores many styles and moods. It is always wonderful to listen (the late) William David Brohn’s masterful orchestrations, so I am pleased that they are being used in this production to its full potential.

Final thoughts
I think I can count on one hand how many times I have had such an emotional reaction to musicals on Norwegian stages that have not been replica productions, and I can therefore in good conscience recommend anyone who wants a musical experience out of the ordinary to head to the theater to both enjoy and become more enlightened on aspects of the Vietnam War. Even though this is fictional, there are enough shadows from the dark side of history that this work of art still deserves its place in musical theatre history.

Review: MISS SAIGON at Folketeatret

Review: MISS SAIGON at Folketeatret

Review: MISS SAIGON at Folketeatret


Folketeatret, Oslo Norway
By: Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boublil (lyrics)
Director: Guy Unsworth
Translation Atle Halstensen
With: Catharina Vu, Sigurd Vespestad Marthinussen, Duc Mai-The, Espen Grjotheim, Sanne Kvitnes, Carl Sohlberg, Karen Bernardino, ensemble and musicians
Choreography: Cressida Carré
Lighting designer: Matt Haskins
Set design: David Woodhead
Costume designer: Jean Chan
Mask designer: Tiiu Luht
Sound designer: Ulf Erlend Haave
Musical direcor: Bendik Eide
Producers: Scenekvelder by Karianne Jæger (producer) and Atle Halstensen (artistic director)


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From This Author - Christian Ranke

Christian Ranke is a writer, singer, actor and graphic designer. He has translated several musicals, such as EVITA (Rice/Lloyd Webber), THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (Dempsey/Rowe), PETER PAN – A MUSI... Christian Ranke">(read more about this author)


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