Post show discussions, reviews and commentary can, on occasion, leave one wondering, “Were we even in the same theatre?” The leap some folks make in their quest for subtext could genuinely delight a director whose capacity for eliciting such nuance exists only as a gift unrealised.
Jonathan Pryce donning eye prosthetics and yellow make up to portray The Engineer in the original 1989 London production set the wheels of Miss Saigon controversy in motion. Star vehicle in place, advance box office records smashed – the West End seemed less bothered by a Caucasian actor playing an Asian role and Pryce won an Oliver award for his trouble. But ‘yellowface’ didn’t sit quite so well with Broadway. Initially barred from appearing by the American Equity Association, the ban on Pryce performing was only lifted when producer Cameron Mackintosh threatened to pull the show entirely – Pryce went on to win the Tony.
The Engineer beyond Pryce has predominantly been played by Asian actors and arguably should have been from the outset, after all, much was made of the worldwide search to find a Kim; a process that made a star of the astounding Lea Salonga. For 35 years Miss Saigon has been an extraordinary launchpad and showcase for Asian talent but racially reductive depictions of Asians, and in particular of Asian women, for many remains contentious – this is after all a retelling of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly! Predominantly American in sympathy and (you choose) profoundly, ironically or problematically created by Frenchmen, the show begins in Saigon days before the US withdrawal. While not a true story, it’s certainly a plausible one and Act 2’s anthemic opening number Bui Doi not only cements the piece in reality but reflects the musical’s genesis.
This current tour is Opera Australia’s presentation of Cameron Mackintosh’s 2014 London and subsequent Broadway revival. Initially directed by Laurence Connor, ten years on, crediting all involved since is a considerable task but the calibre and strength of this production is absolutely reflective of the many creative filters engaged in getting it to stage. Design team Matt Kinley and Totie Driver have cleverly pulled together grittier streetscapes and seedier venues and while not on the same jaw dropping cinematic scale as the original London production at Drury Lane, this remounted classic still feels lavish, particularly in maintaining some of the show’s most memorable and technically elaborate sequences.
Notable in this latest incarnation are significant lyrical rewrites that positively redact in some instances, particularly around race, and offer poor substitutions for the original in others (‘All that chicken shit sucks’ bizarrely survived the cull). Entirely sung through, this is a musical with a proper and original score that still feels remarkably fresh and sits in staggering contrast to the slot machine pay outs of a Jukebox musical. Instantly accessible, soaring lushly romantic numbers genuinely move the narrative forward only to reappear at times of tension and tragedy to powerfully amplify emotional impact.
Opera Australia has assembled over 40 incredibly gifted performers in this tight, slick and genuinely flawless production with a pride inducing front row of talent. Abigail Adriano is impossibly good as Kim. For a performer of this age to have such command in a role of this size and nature is astonishing. Strong, committed and believable at every point it’s hard to imagine how this level of character comprehension can be sourced and delivered from one so young. Nigel Huckle brings a vulnerability to Chris that plays well against some of the nastier aspects of his surrounds. Powerful vocals, particularly in the emotionally charged uncomfortable scenes of Act 2 really impress.
Nick Afoa delivers a measured, stable and less aggressive John that feels welcome and sense making particularly for his act 2 journey. Laurence Mossman as Thuy not only offers one of the best vocals in the production but his characterisation moves firmly away from stage villain to impressively nudge territory usually occupied by a romantic lead. Bringing a more understandable and honourable take to Kim’s jilted promised suitor not only generates a sympathy shift but compounds Kim’s turmoil in that he no longer feels so much like the best worst option.
Kimberly Hodgson brings her all to Gigi – a minor role with a major song. Her vocals are huge and uplifting but alas, her soaring 'Movie in My Mind' moment was ruined by irritating and ignorant TV talent show like applause that cuts over her performance and subsequently encroaches upon the next section of the song. What a shame.
Playing Saigon’s very own ‘Sound of Music Baroness’ is a tough gig, and while we know it isn’t Ellen’s fault, it is still hard to like her. Kerrie Anne Greenland does a great job in the role and has an absolutely cracking voice. The rewrites for this production include a new song for problematic Ellen but unfortunately, ‘Maybe’ isn’t better than her original number. ‘Now that I’ve seen her’ gave Ellen a position, “I know what pain her life today must be, but if it all comes down to her or me…” There’s no win for anyone we know but ‘Maybe’ is as grey as the song itself.
Efforts to reconcile past indiscretions are indeed a moving feast and a recent non replica production of Miss Saigon at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre saw former West End and Australia’s original Kim, Joanna Ampil play The Engineer. While not quite as radical as casting a former Kim, it’s abundantly clear that Sean Miley Moore has arrived to subvert. This is casting gold, a choice and an incredible opportunity to allow a rapaciously talented performer to alter and uniquely stamp an iconic musical theatre role. Filled with intricate and intelligent choices even when not in focus, licence has been given and taken to run with and explore, resulting in a fabulously original and contemporary take. It just works and it works so well that it seems implausible that it’s taken this long to get here. Ruthless self-interested arrogance coupled with androgyny and sexual positivity almost softens the character and the evident, reciprocal, favouring of fun with the GIs moves the usual pimp relationship with his girls to something more like camaraderie over exploitation. Without question, this Engineer would plausibly step in to turn a trick for the bucks as much as the kick. With powerhouse vocals, Miley Moore’s performance is so much more than surface camp artifice, it’s intelligent irreverent disciplined and thrilling and the casting choice is simultaneously brave and utterly logical.
Miss Saigon remains a great storytelling musical that will continue to defy cancellation because it deeply affects. ‘Art isn’t easy’ said one dearly departed composer but surely, the promotion of thought and the generation of new thinking around difficult stuff is what makes it worthwhile and necessary. There’s absolute merit in revisionism, and questioning must be part of the theatrical experience but there is also room, particularly when something is this good, to simply be joyful in experiencing beautiful music, incredible staging and stunning performances.
Opera Australia presents
music Claude-Michel Schönberg | lyrics Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil, adapted from original French lyrics by Alain Boublil | additional lyrics Michael Mahler
Director Laurence Connor
Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne VIC
Dates: until 16 December 2023