Miss Saigon must be the most monumental musical ever made.
No matter what you might hear about it beforehand…seeing the show is little short of a stupendous experience. It epically swoops and soars from tumultuous and catastrophic world events to one of the most intimate and heart-breaking love stories ever told.
Underpinning the whole show is a magnificent musical score that, unburdened by any hackneyed hits, transports the audience into two quite different cultures; worlds apart.
Set in Vietnam at the end of the American presence…the delicate, ethereal songs sung by Asian characters are played on ethnic instruments in a 5-note pentatonic scale. But when the boisterous GIs arrive, suddenly we’re assailed by blasts of brash, western, big band rock and roll. Composer Claude-Michel Schonberg judged all this perfectly almost 30 years ago … and his music still stops the heart.
In this new production, the lovers are terrific…their relationship is both spiritually sensitive and raunchily sexual. Ashley Gilmour’s all-American male has a gentle, caring voice, bourn on controlled emotion … but with a psyche shot though by confusion and self-doubt. Surely God cannot have intended such an horrendous war that so completely messes your mind. “A guy can live like a king,” he sings, “as long as you don’t believe in anything”.
But when he meets the beautiful, virginal, Kim in a seedy brothel, his instinct is protective rather than exploitive. In the performance I saw, Kim was magically played by Joreen Bautista. In the recurring anthem “Movie In My Mind”, Kim sings about how she is “seventeen and new here today”. The same is true of Joreen, who the producers discovered in Manilla just a year ago. In such a tiny frame, she has purity and enough power to fill the theatre. Her unexpected appearance in the role made the evening extra-special.
Some of the effects are overwhelming. A spectacular Chinese dragon appears flanked by banner waving soldiers dancing with a mechanical precision so precise it’s difficult to know how they do it. I was reminded of the mind-blowing routines in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.
The recurring crowd scenes seem chaotic but are intricately choreographed; and the chorus – drawn from 16 different countries – is packed with people who would be star turns in any other show. In the brothel scenes, both genders bravely indulge in sexual excesses that would make the late Lord Chamberlain faint.
Red Conception excels as the hugely animated, scheming Engineer, desperate to escape to America. He certainly knows how to hold a stage and milk the moment; and how to tread the fine line between being a nasty piece of work and a loveable rogue. It must be a definitive performance in the history of the show.
But amidst the crash, bang and wallop, are scenes of great sensitivity. Chris struggles with his scruples as he tries to resolve his love for two women. For he has been married all along to Ellen; a cameo turned into a leading lady by the sheer quality of Zoe Doano’s performance. Her character has an extra song in this revival which pinpoints her dilemma perfectly.
Unaware of all this, Kim yearns for a decent future for the son she bears her husband. “On the other side of the earth, is a place where your life will have worth”. But, like the Madame Butterfly on which she is modelled, her dream will cost her her own life.
And so to the famous moment; the helicopter. If you are unfamiliar with Miss Saigon, you need to keep your story-line wits about you as the show dives back and forth through time. The one tiny weakness is that the chronology is disrupted, it seems, purely so the spectacular evacuation of Saigon’s American Embassy can take place as late in the show as possible. But it’s well worth waiting for.
A hand-drawn video image of a descending chopper resolves itself into a corporeal machine that hovers dangerously close to the embassy gates whilst all humanity yearns to climb on board. The special effect earned its own spontaneous outbreak of applause; but it was nothing compared to the overwhelming ovation that swamped the entire cast at the end of a truly unbeatable night in the theatre.
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