Miss Saigon has finally opened to a full house at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC, in Brisbane. This fun, dramatic, emotive and often clichéd musical has been performed around the world since its inception in 1989. A story that is known to be loved by audiences and critics alike, a great deal of expectation is placed on this performance. Unfortunately, expectations often exceed the end result, and this was certainly the case with Miss Saigon.
The story of Miss Saigon is clearly resonant of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Set in Vietnam during (and after) the war, there are a few differences such as the Matchmaker and the Nurse being combined into the character of The Engineer (Miss Saigon’s pimp), but in essence, the story remains the same. A young, romantic army lieutenant (American GI Chris, played by David Harris) falls for the beautiful, virgin Miss Saigon (‘Kim’, played by Laurie Cadevida). After purchasing her and marrying her in a whirlwind of passion, Chris has to return to America because of his duties to the army, thereby leaving Miss Saigon (or Madama Butterfly) in a near destitute state. Kim remains faithfully in love with her absent husband, guarding a precious secret and constantly yearning for Chris’ return. However, Chris also hides a secret, and his imminent return reveals a more horrifying nightmare for Kim than the war itself.
The performance opens in the sleazy Vietnamese club ‘Dreamland’ operated by The Engineer. Multiple mini-scenes are playing out simultaneously across the stage: on a staircase a couple are kissing fervently; the waiters place bets and laugh at the women; a prostitute dances on a table for a man. The mise en scene gloriously compliments the multi-faceted and morally ambiguous world of ‘Dreamland’. Then, standing in the middle of the stage, is a small, conservatively dressed girl, carrying a basket and appearing so utterly out of place. This girl is Miss Saigon, and she is quickly swept into the world of the club and sold to her first customer, Chris.
While the staging of the opening scene has so many elements simultaneously occurring – multiple stories, various projected emotions, creative use of the space, a sexed up, grungy atmosphere – the show quickly transforms into a traditional, linear narrative, focusing on the two protagonists and occasionally throwing in asides from the comic relief character, The Engineer. It is an enjoyable show, with beautiful songs and an engaging plot, but there is little that is challenging in the theatrical choices that were made.
The actors’ choices are not overly bold. The powerful moment where Kim decides to leave Vietnam, is performed with The Engineer, Tam and Kim slowly walking away into the ‘distance’, which is a backdrop of a pink sunset. Kim looks back at the audience in a final glance. The effect that this sequence produces is entirely cliché. Rather than confronting the audience with the devastating nature of this situation – being forced to leave your home because it no longer holds anything for you – the audience is privileged to a rather pretty but not overly significant theatrical moment.
Further evidence of this performance’s simple theatrical choices occurs when Kim and Chris are singing their love duets. ‘The Last Night of the World’ is one of the most popular ballads of this musical. With beautiful lyrics, and an enchanting melody, it is a sound artistic expression of their love. However, the audience not only endures lengthy make-out scenes between the verses, but the couple literally embrace and kiss after every single line of the song. It was a bit of overkill. Surely there is something that is a little more visually and theatrically stimulating that the couple could have done between lines. This was rather discouraging.
Miss Saigon feels clichéd due to its two-dimensional characters. It doesn’t push the boundaries beyond the stereotypes. Kim is ready to die for love, and sees love as the only path to freedom. To view the show from a feminist perspective it is slightly frustrating to watch this beautiful woman being completely trapped in her world and to believe that the only way out of her plight is through a man. It is the tragic nature of her love that turns Kim into a stereotype, and therefore limits her growth as a character. Similarly, none of the other characters grow much from the beginning to the end of the musical.
The famous helicopter scene made use of a 3D multimedia projection, where a helicopter ‘hovered’ over the American embassy and the American soldiers ran up to a high point in the stage and jumped, appearing as though they jumped in to the helicopter. This was cleverly done, however it slightly lost its impact due to the lack in staging effects over the rest of the stage. For a show that obviously has a large budget, where was the fan that makes the ensemble look as if they are at least slightly windblown by the low flying helicopter? Where was the sky in the background of the animation? It appeared as if the idea only reached about 60% of its potential impact.
All criticisms of clichés and missed potential aside, Miss Saigon is an entertaining (but not inspiring) piece of theatre. Leo Tavarro Valdez, who played The Engineer, was fabulously fabulous, and fantastic to watch. His persona was engaging, dramatic, flamboyant and pure show-biz. Equally entertaining was the moment I had been waiting for, ‘The American Dream’. This all-out chorus-line number was great, however there seemed to be a scant number of showgirls.
While ‘The American Dream’ did not quite have the magnitude I imagined, it was fabulous still to see it performed live. That pretty much surmises the entire performance. The hype surrounding the show is rather more exciting than the show itself, yet even though it is highly clichéd theatre and really not as magnificent as you would imagine, it is still fun to let yourself be whirled away into this exotic story.
Cameron Mackintosh presents
Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jnr and Alain Boublil
Adapted from original French lyrics by Alain Boublil
Venue: Lyric Theatre, QPAC
Previews: From Sun 22 July
Dates: From 26 July
Times: Tue - Sat, 7.30pm*, Sun 3pm, Wed & Sat, 1.30pm. *Sat 1 Sep & Thu 6 Sep - 8.00pm performance
Tickets: $39.95 to $99.95 (inc. fees)
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