Miss Saigon | Cameron MackintoshLeft - Leo Tavarro Valdez. Cover - Laurie Cadevida & David Harris. Photos - Sim & Choi

Despite being the 10th longest-running Broadway Musical of all time, Miss Saigon has never quite done it for me, yet I have to admit that Cameron Mackintosh’s new production does pack quite a punch. I remember the 1995 Australian leg of the original production and the underwhelming effect it had on me, so whether it is simply that my tastes (and my seats) have improved in the ensuing years, or if this new staging is genuinely a marked improvement is perhaps best left to the vagaries of time and memory.

As you probably know, Miss Saigon is an adaptation of Puccini's Madame Butterfly, neatly transposed to the setting of the final days of the Vietnam War and (as in the opera) the tragic consequences for everyone involved after the passage of a further three years. Even if the budding romance between an American Marine and a Vietnamese teenage prostitute seems contrived (and even potentially offensive), the fall of Saigon is such a powerful backdrop for raw human drama that the musical can’t help but have considerable impact at times.

While by no means much of a reinvention, this new production is a slick, big-time musical that knows what it’s doing and how to go about it. A tightly-directed and choreographed show (locally executed by Laurence Connor and
Geoff Garratt respectively), this version is a confident show with a great deal of momentum.

Those familiar with Miss Saigon’s famous set-piece either by past experience or reputation alone should be forewarned – the famous helicopter sequence is out. Well, not exactly. Apparently in order to allow the production to tour more easily to smaller venues (although in the sizeable Lyric this seems an unlikely necessity), the decision to discard the iconic “real” helicopter prop was made in favour of an enormous CGI projection. Although actually very well executed, this virtual helicopter is nevertheless likely to disappoint anyone who either fondly remembers the “authentic” original or had always wanted to see it for themselves.

That said, the evacuation sequence which precedes the chopper’s arrival is truly masterful. Beautifully choreographed with huge fences gliding on castors into a series of different configurations, the action seamlessly cuts back and forth from the inside to the outside of the barricaded US base. A masterstroke of ensemble performance, the stars and chorus unite to make this scene indisputably the dramatic highlight of the performance.

The tragic, if a little boring, protagonists are very capably brought to life by local rising star David Harris and the alternate female lead Jennifer Trijo (filling in for imported headliner Laurie Cadevida). But the show is stolen by Leo Tavarro Valdez as the pimp nicknamed The Engineer, although on some level this is not entirely surprising as the character himself seems very much to take over the show at times. The Engineer is a significant part of the plot to be sure, but his stage presence and number of songs are disproportionate to his real continuing influence on the story. One gets the distinct impression that creators Schönberg and Boublil simply fell in love with the character during the show’s composition and ended up giving him so much of the limelight as a result. Indeed, it seems odd for a play which is primarily about two star-crossed lovers that it should be the scoundrel character who is afforded the final bow at the curtain call, and for his performer to receive top billing.

However, this is the part as written, and Valdez does a simply marvellous job with it. Absolutely brimming with delightfully repellent charisma, he imbues The Engineer with the requisite balance of smarm, charm and even engenders a modicum of sympathy. At times his enunciation when in full song seemed somewhat poor, but given Valdez’s significant past career in this role I suspect there may have been sound mixing issues at play.

Similarly, the rich, sonorous voice of Juan Jackson as John seemed almost unintelligible in his first song yet quite clear in his excellent Act II opener, “Bui Doi”. Also highly effective was Amanda Harrison, bringing great pathos to the role of Ellen, and RJ Rosales as Thuy, particularly in his reappearance towards the climax as a condemning phantom.

“The ensemble” of chorus players don’t always get their due in a big musical, but I particularly want to applaud this highly energetic and talented group who really brought to life so much of the story with their bustling action and commitment to characterisation, even though playing unnamed roles. The female members were especially game in tackling their multiple characters, primarily as the gyrating showgirls/prostitutes of Saigon and Bangkok in what might well seem like thankless parts. Particular kudos goes to whoever was the first performer leading the plaintive chorus of “Movie in My Mind”, a talented dramatic singer who deserves larger parts in the future.

Miss Saigon may not be for everyone, but this is an excellent production of one of the most successful of all modern musicals.

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, Star City
Dates: Thursday 20 September to Saturday 22 December
Times: Tuesday to Saturday @ 8pm
Matinees: Wednesday’s @ 1pm, Saturday’s @ 2pm & Sunday’s @ 5pm
Tickets: $39.90 to $99.90
Running Time: 2 hours 45mins, including 20min interval
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 796 330 or www.tickemaster.com.au
Visit www.miss-saigonaustralia.com.au

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