Miss SaigonLeft - Scott Farrow and Tess Hansen. Photo - Tony McKendrick

It's easy to understand why the Tasmanian Theatre Unit Trust - the same outfit that brought last year's massive production of Les Misérables to the Theatre Royal - opted for Miss Saigon this time. It's a big name show that should sell tickets, and it actually covers very similar dramatic territory to Les Misérables, for all that Miss Saigon is set in a different century on a different continent -- no doubt allowing the production team (as well as some of the cast) to capitalise on their most recent experience.

Both shows are stories of life amidst the upheaval of revolution and war, both have a key "set piece" (in this it's the helicopter leaving Saigon, in Les Misérables it's the barricade scene) and both revolve around a classic love story. And they're both written by the French team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. (Miss Saigon, however, is a simpler tale, the plot stripped back to the point of being almost non-existent in places, while Les Misérables bristles with colourful characters and situations.)

But it has to be said the choice of Miss Saigon is not an easy one. Casting this show has given Broadway and West End producers more than a few headaches, so no surprise if it causes some difficulties for an amateur production in Hobart. The question is: can you cast a non-Asian to play an Asian character?

The local musical theatre scene, strong as it is, doesn't boast much of an Asian presence if this show is anything to go by: there are no Asians in the cast. Okay, so where Asian performers are not available, the casting of non-Asians is understandable; but this does lead to additional challenges that I'm not sure that this production quite comes to terms with. No one wants to see non-Asian actors "playing Asian" (employing stereotypical mannerisms or accents as a theatrical device), but this story doesn't work unless you know which characters are Vietnamese and which are American and unless you get a real sense of the contrast, so something has to be done.

Miss Saigon is a story about a clash of cultures. Chris (Scott Farrow) is a young GI in Saigon in 1975. Falling in love with a Vietnamese girl - the sweet, shy Kim (Tess Hansen) - is really no joke for this guy. It's inconvenient, and it goes on causing him trouble long after his return to America. Kim is able to see Chris as a human being and not a nationality, but he ultimately can't let go of the knowledge that Kim is not "his own kind." This is the tragedy of their story.

Actually, all it would have taken, perhaps, is more attention to costuming and hair. Putting all the Asian characters in simple black wigs and having them dress in a consistently Vietnamese style would have been enough to maintain the illusion and allow the audience to suspend disbelief.

As it is we have the opening scene where a roomful of "Vietnamese" prostitutes are dressed like Australian twenty-somethings out for a night at the pub, complete with hair in all styles and shades. A 1970s look isn't even attempted. You spend too much time thinking about what characters are "supposed" to be rather than just enjoying what they are. It doesn't help that the show launches into the plot immediately, with these distractions in full force.

However, there are other scenes that do rise to the challenge: notably, the What a Waste number, set amongst the brothels of Bangkok, handles similar material much more effectively. The Morning of the Dragon is also wonderfully realised, putting the ensemble in traditional rice hats. They play stylised versions of Vietnamese peasants here, which is what the scene calls for, and it works. There's also some superb dancing in this scene (choreographed by Mandy Lowrie).

I will say, also, that the principals manage to overcome these difficulties. Tess Hansen adopts a demure, slightly formal manner, which, along with her more traditional dress, is enough to convey the impression of a Vietnamese village girl. As the French-Vietnamese pimp, the Engineer, Andrew Hickman is very tall and doesn't look Asian at all, but he does something interesting with his voice occasionally - is it just a slight mispronunciation every now and then? - that suggests "otherness".

Putting this issue aside, and what does this Miss Saigon have to offer? First and foremost there's plenty of powerful singing (helped by amplification, but you don't get the feeling anyone was reliant on it)– full of pathos and turmoil and tenderness.

Miss Saigon is one of those shows that can simply be enjoyed as you sit back and let the melody and melodrama wash over you. The story doesn't have the complexity of Les Misérables or the Gothic stylings of Phantom of the Opera: what it does have is a few great songs (and a few lesser ones) and an explosive setting, with echoes of real world, East-West confusion and hypocrisy.

The Engineer is the best character in Miss Saigon. He's one of those weaselly "survivor" characters you can't help but like. Not really part of the story and yet constantly inserting himself into it, the Engineer is quite a strange role, really. Hickman approaches it with intelligence and charm and his performance is utterly entertaining.

As Chris, the nice young man who gets into trouble and later has to tell his wife about it, Scott Farrow is also a charismatic performer. He makes his character appealing but clearly flawed, and he happens to also have a very fine voice.

Tess Hansen, as Kim, has a slightly bigger challenge: her character goes through relentless, escalating trauma as the story progresses. She's got precious little to sing about , really, and the fact that she keeps going on about "moonlight" and "paper dragons" is proof, perhaps, that she just might have gone completely nuts. Well, there's a fine line between epic romance and insanity, perhaps - and in this way, Miss Saigon is a truly modern musical. Is it a story about love or about the illusion of love?

(Could this sense of moral ambiguity be the reason that Chris and Kim's initial meeting is strangely handled? They don't ever seem to actually "fall in love" - you never see that moment, you only hear it talked about later.)

All that aside, Hansen's strong performance as the delicate but ferocious Kim wrings every drop of pathos from the story. Craig Wood, as that nasty piece of work Thuy, has a big voice that's suited to the role; scary indeed as he towers over Kim malevolently. As Chris's erstwhile army buddy John, Stuart Pearce brings conviction to the stage whenever he appears; he's perfectly cast. Nicole Simms is formidable in the tricky role of Chris's American wife, Ellen.

These three characters - Chris, John and Ellen - have several scenes together that feel like soap opera and it's to the actors' credit that they manage to keep things grounded in reality. Scott Farrow manages this well throughout, in fact, rarely allowing emotion to overwhelm him and keeping hold of his character as an "average Joe." It's this idea that he might be any American GI that gives Miss Saigon its resonance.

The climactic scene does comes abruptly; which I'm sure is intentional but I'm reminded of Madame Butterfly (on which Miss Saigon is loosely based) and wish a slightly more operatic approach had been taken. On the off-chance that you don't know the plot of either Miss Saigon or Madame Butterfly, let me just say that a bit more violence wouldn't have gone astray. Let's face it, this is actually a pretty depressing story, on a par with Cabaret for sheer "fiddling while Rome burns" nihilism, and it could really afford to go even darker than it does here.

This Miss Saigon is visually compelling, with director Robert Jarman arranging a series of striking tableaux that often tell more of the story than the show’s lyrics do. William Dowd's set design is inventive throughout, with the use of intense fabrics and patterns particularly effective. Musically, the ensemble and orchestra are consistently impressive. The song that sticks in your head is Sun and Moon, a sweetly romantic (or delusional?) ballad that encapsulates the story's theme. Miss Saigon is confidently performed, with a crisp pace that builds to greater and greater heights of emotional catharsis.

Tasmanian Theatre Unit Trust and Craig Wellington Productions presents
Miss Saigon
Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg

Theatre Royal, Hobart
Dates: October 8 – 24 2009
Bookings: Theatre Royal on 6233 2299 | Centertainment on 6234 5998 | www.theatretrust.com

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