Cameron Mackintosh's new production of Miss Saigon at the Sydney Opera House is a triumphant return to the best production values of the Musical Blockbuster genre.
This musical is Boublil and Schönberg's follow up to their mega hit Les Miserables and first premiered in London in 1989, coming to Australia in 1995. It has been performed in 15 different languages, in over 32 countries and 350 cities, and has won a slew of awards though most frequently it has to be said for performances rather than content.
The musical tells the story of a young Vietnamese woman named Kim, who is orphaned by war and forced to work in a sleazy bar run by a notorious entrepreneur called the Engineer. There she meets and falls in love with Chris, an American G.I. But the fall of Saigon tears them apart and Kim is forced to endure a three-year epic journey of survival to find her way back to Chris, who has no idea that he's fathered her son. Yes, it may sound a little familiar as anyone aware of the story of Madame Butterfly will tell you. Same tale, different Asian country suffering under American imperial interference.
Boublil and Schönberg certainly know how to write an epic ballad, and this show is exhaustingly full of them. The music is lush and emotive, but it is a traumatic ride from start to finish and there is little relief as we see this doomed story unfold. There really isn’t a moment when we believe there is going to be a happy ending, but the incredible music keeps us sitting in the carriage as we careen perilously towards the inevitable train wreck of an ending. Because as tragic as the tale may be, it is presented with incredible skill by some astoundingly talented performers.
The huge multicultural ensemble of 42 is impressive in its size and skill. It appears to have twice as many men as women, no doubt to further accent themes of male imperialist dominance, but it also lends the ensemble numbers an exciting athleticism. The choreography by Bob Avian is strong and powerful highlighted with some energetic and crisply executed acrobatics.
Abigail Adriano as Kim is gorgeous, her low register surprises with a warm strength equal to her soaring belt range. Most impressive is her transformation from young innocent to mature woman as the tale progresses. It’s a skilfully crafted journey that ensures she transcends purely victim status.
Nigel Huckle as Chris is also a stand out. His command of the demanding vocal score is nothing short of perfect and he seems to soar from subtlety to passion with an effortlessness that defies description.
Kerrie Anne Greenland as Ellen delivers a somewhat thankless role with great feeling, Nick Afoa as John engages us with great heart, and Kimberley Hodgson spectacularly nails the yearning vocals of Gigi.
But it is the casting of Seann Miley Moore as the Engineer that reveals just how much a performer can transform both a character and a show. His Engineer is riveting – sinuous yet brutal, joyful yet dangerous. He takes this difficult creature and makes it his own, dominating the stage with a mischievous energy that is hard to resist. His charm coats the stage with a power as seductive as heroin and just as lethal. We hate and love him in equal measure and that is an incredible feat of showmanship.
But no review of this ideologically troubled show would be complete without touching on the difficult questions of its cultural questionability. In Miss Saigon, Vietnam is portrayed as mysterious, and exotic yet full of incomprehensible savagery. The Vietnam War impoverished many people, destroyed much of their country, and forced many to turn to prostitution in order to survive. Every Vietnamese female character in Miss Saigon is a prostitute which serves to perpetuate an ultra-sexualized Western stereotype of Asian women, understandably quite offensive to a great many people.
And yes, the skimpy female costuming of the opening number is actually rather confronting – as is the swamp of testosterone surrounding them. But it doesn’t celebrate that culture. It rather reveals it as distasteful and worth working not to repeat. Nevertheless, it remains a difficult and triggering component of the tale. However, the flip side of presenting this tale is that it also reveals the dark and dangerous consequences of political imperialism. In this story the danger comes from the USA, but recent war events in Afghanistan and Ukraine and other parts of the world reveal that these stories are far from over and worth remembering as a warning.
There is a definite argument that the Asian tropes, particularly of women presented in Miss Saigon are offensive. There is an equal argument that theatre should reveal these inequities and a good production should leave you challenged and learning from the dark mistakes of the past. It’s a very tricky tightrope to walk, but the producers have certainly paid it close attention when reworking this revival, and although some will not agree, this production largely succeeds in finding a palatable balance.
And its all done with incredible production values supporting a truly impressive cast of superb singers and dancers. If you are fan of mega musicals this will not disappoint. It is tragic and wonderful, vocally flawless and epic in its scale.
Opera Australia presents Cameron Mackintosh's production of
music Claude-Michel Schönberg | book and lyrics Alain Boubil | lyrics Richard Maltby Jnr & Michael Mahler
Director: Laurence Connor
Australian Production Direction: Jean Pierre Van Der Spuy
Venue: Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point Sydney NSW
Dates: 17 August – 13 October 2023
Tickets: $75 – $299
Melbourne From 30 October 2023