Left – Veronica Alonzo and Daniel Placido
It's another blockbuster I missed, in its mainstream season/s, probably due to mounting cynicism re Lord Webber who, despite my admiration for his earlier works, seemed to be churning musicals out like sausages, at the time. ALW isn't the author of this show, but he might as well be. I even fancy I hear echoes of Jesus Christ Superstar peppered throughout. Its remounting, by one of Australia's longest-running musical theatre companies (there's a number of them tucked away in the 'burbs), in Chatswood Musical Society, afforded me the opportunity to acquaint myself with Miss Saigon and, I have to confess, I was impressed.
First of all, Miss Saigon has some heart, based, as it is, on the children left behind in the wake of the Vietnam war. In this production, at least, here are even interpolations of black-and-white documentary photos, including one or two iconic ones which still make one swallow hard. Almost needless to say, it's about as tragic as a love story gets and I can all but guarantee you'll tear-up, at some point. But it's more than a mere love story, taking a sensitive, sympathetic approach to the plight of the Vietnamese, while ennobling individual US soldiers to some extent, even while obliquely critiquing, perhaps, the insanity of the foreign invasion. The book is by Alain Boublil & Claude-Michel Schonberg, Schonberg penned the music, while Boublil co-wrote the lyrics, alongside Richard Maltby, Jr.
Boublil, Schonberg and Maltby have taken the layout, if you will, of Puccini's Madame Butterfly into new territory. As well as the crowd-pleasing tale of broken romance, the pathos brought to bear through historical reality seems to have struck a major chord, given that the peripatetic Cam Mackintosh's premiere of the show at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, back in 1989, realised a decade-long run and four-thousand performances, in London alone. At last count, it was still the eleventh longest-running musical in theatre history, proving unequivocally that Boublil and Schonberg, writers of Les Miserables, were more than one-hit-wonders.
Anne Veitch, erstwhile President of CMS, took the directorial reins for CMS's 2012 season opener, recruiting Therese Doyle as musical director and Kelly Goldberg as choreographer.
It's 1975 and the American occupation of Vietnam is in its dying days. 17-year-old Kim has been drafted for service, not in the military, but as a concubine working for 'The Engineer'. She's not cut out for the job, so is fortunate (in a way) to encounter Chris, an American serviceman who breaks the stereotypical mould of all care, no responsibility, minus the care. Despite his tenderness toward Kim, he seems to forget himself in marrying her, before shipping out. Next thing we know, while she's been patiently and loyally awaiting his return, he's married, living a comfortable middle-class life back home, until his job reacquaints him with what he's left behind and he learns of the fruit of his loins.
The sweet-voiced Veronica Alonzo is Kim, her warm, smoky timbre (which never sacrifices openness or clarity) inviting identification and empathy. Theatrically, she matches her vocal maturity, both traits likely born of considerable experience in musical theatre and vocal coaching by the likes of Margi De Ferranti. Jeremy Curtin is Chris; sublime in the upper register, his voice soars. He, too, carries the role delicately, such that the moments between Chris & Kim are palpably heartrending. It's both astonishing and depressing that performers of this calibre haven't broken through to the mainstream. And, of course, the cast's depth and talent begins, doesn't end, with them. Mike Curtin (yes, you spotted it, Jeremy's brother) is the Vietnamese equivalent of The Emcee of The Kit Kat Club, mischievous, menacing and characterful; hardbitten, but with a well-concealed heart of gold, despite his cynical opportunism; a kind of Indo-Chinese Max Von Trapp. Daniel Placido is as operatic as his name implies as Kim's jilted, none-too-pleased husband, Thuy, in a position to exact revenge. One of the profound pleasures of the work is that the characters are complex; even the veritable Mother Mary status of Kim is compromised by an intemperate outburst later on, in meeting Chris' American wife. Placido reflects his internal struggle with great skill and expressiveness, both vocally and physically. Daley Chaston is John, Chris' colleague and confidante and yet another fine singer. Helen Harris is lovely as Ellen, the very picture of support, understanding and tolerance, but with her limits, also. Hers is a voice one could listen to all day.
The principals are more than ably supported by the remainder of the lineup, with no real weak links in the chain, but the real miracle of this production is the set and costumes. A Caddy, large-as-life helicopter landing, convincing approximation of a makeshift bar and very cleverly designed, reversible airbase barricade (around which a dramatically choreographed scene was devised by Goldberg). Neil Shotter devised and Alan Roy built. Beth Pilley's costumes, too, are excellent. The tricky number and scale of scene, set and prop changes begs credit for stage management, also effected by Shotter. Less miraculous was audio, which was muddy and obscured so many of the lyrics. In fact, this was the only aspect of the whole production which let the side down.
In the end, Miss Saigon is an humane, feeling piece of work, imbued with genuine pathos (and a sincerity not always so easy to come by in this genre of theatrical entertainment) that will resonate for anyone who fought in, lost someone or themselves in, or just remembers the Vietnam debacle. Perhaps it touches because it comes from the right place: allegedly, the project started with Schonberg happening upon a photograph of a mother waving goodbye to her child as he boarded a plane at Tan Son Nhut airbase, to head for the US, where his father could provide for him. For my own part, as little more than a small child, I remember being terrified by talk of conscription and selfishly wishing and hoping the war would be over before I turned 18.
Much of the heart is inbuilt to the musical, but it takes a prodigiously talented team to bring it home; a tall order, that CMS fulfils.
Miss Saigon represents an important step for CMS, which sees it move from its home ground at The Gillian Moore Centre For Performing Arts, at Pymble Ladies' College, to the contemporary grandeur of The Concourse, an edifice erected in an act of self-homage by Willoughby Council's mayor, as much a fixture, if not pillar, of the lower north shore community as The Concourse itself. The theatre at the heart of the precinct (for it's more than a building) is exceptionally well-equipped and furnished, giving little away to Sydney's major venues. Indeed, with the likes of Kiri Te Kanawa, Judy Collins & The English National Ballet performing there, it is, now, one of Sydney's major venues.
Chatswood Musical Society presents
Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg
Venue: The Concourse, Victoria Avenue, Chatswood
Dates: 4 – 12 May, 2012
Tickets: $42.50 – $35.00
Bookings: www.chatswoodmusicals.org | Ticketek 1300 79 50 12