Miss Saigon – Review – Bradford Alhambra
By Sandra Callard, September 2018
Cameron Mackintosh’s highly successful production of Miss Saigon is hitting the boards again in this high-octane love story story based on Puccini’s famous opera, Madama Butterfly. The story setting is transposed from Japan to the disjointed and uncertain world of 1970s Vietnam as the Americans are preparing to pull out of Saigon and shed the burden of the catastrophic Vietnam War.
Miss Saigon is a massive blockbuster of a musical, almost one hundred percent sung in song and prose, and contains special effects galore, in particular the landing of a helicopter to ferry away American soldiers back to their homeland. As it does so it leaves the begging and terrified Vietnamese to their fate, and is a scene both spectacular and harrowing.
“Barbed sense of humour”
Kim is a 17-year-old refugee from her burnt-out village in Vietnam, who arrives in Saigon, penniless and naive, and ends up, predictably, in a bar/brothel run, also predictably, by a careless and sleazy pimp nicknamed ‘The Engineer’. Brilliantly played by Christian Rey Marbella, he has a barbed sense of humour which masks the unsavoury business he runs, and the character is second only in stage duration and length of lines to the eponymous lead.
The bar, named Dreamland, contains a surprising number of explicit gyrations by the prostitutes who dance and tout for business, and provide an added air of depravity to the scene. Kim alone tries to stand above this, and is, to some extent, shielded by ‘The Engineer’.
Kim is beautifully and movingly played by Sooha Kim, and her soaring voice emits clear and audible words and notes that touch a nerve. She meets American serviceman, Chris, and they fall in love, hoping eventually for a life together in America. They marry under Vietnamese law, and they sing together Claude-Michel Schonberg’s most beautiful song, ‘The Last Night of the World’, and the pair perform it impeccably, with a sadness that belies their hopes. It is a great shame that the rest of Schonberg’s score is mediocre and fairly forgettable, although the marching rhythms of the Vietnamese army as they drill and twirl their huge flags are pleasing to the eye and ear.
Because Miss Saigon is effectively a Greek tragedy, and as such is played out with great power by the three lead actors, Kim, Marbella and Ashley Gilmour (Chris), the scenes occasionally jump from one extreme to the other with a rapidity that is unsettling. The tragic scene towards the end, quite beautifully executed by Sooha Kim and Ashley Gilmour, is immediately followed by The Engineer fooling about as he sings ‘The American Dream’. Deliberately provocative perhaps, but disturbing and somewhat specious to watch.
“A musical with guts”
Because the Vietnam War is recent enough to be within living memory, Miss Saigon does touch upon many controversial issues. The fact that America accepted many children who had been fathered by American military with Vietnamese women is clearly shown, as is the fear and horror that faced the discarded native people as they are left to face the enemy alone. This made hard viewing, not usually associated with a musical.
Miss Saigon is a musical with guts, emotion and spectacle. It is not a run-of-the-mill, all singing, all dancing show, and is perhaps a welcome relief from such – but it does run the risk of falling between two camps. Singing and dancing it has in spades, but comfortable viewing it has not.