August 1, 2017
Musicals come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The epic and ultimately tragic love story that is Miss Saigon definitely sits at what might be termed the more serious, operatic end of the scale. It may not have the easily recallable numbers of many shows, but it’s terrifically staged, powerfully acted and sung, and, catching me out somewhat, brought a tear to the eye with its heartrending end.
The musical relocates the story of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly to the Vietnam War, one of the dirtier, messier conflicts of the 20th-century with atrocities on all sides. It was a war that divided nations and people, caused individual psychological wounds, and left a complex legacy that still rises to the surface and causes issues today. You can just watch Miss Saigon as entertainment, but I found it impossible to avoid memories of the time, especially the news reports of the fighting and of the so-called boat people who took to the ocean in overcrowded ships as they tried to flee, and who then sometimes spent years in refugee camps. Sound familiar?
With text by Alain Boublil and music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Miss Saigon takes us to the final days of the American occupation of the city, where 17-year-old Kim, orphaned by the fighting, finds herself working in a Saigon bar run by a rather creepy and unsavoury character, the Engineer. There, she meets and falls in love with Chris, a GI. After being separated by the taking of the city by the Vietcong, she sets out with their son (who he has no idea he’s the child’s father) to find him.
The show captures superbly the confusion of war and the scars it leaves. Totie Driver and Matt Kinley’s designs show us all the colourful and gaudy squalor of the Engineer’s Dreamland Club. What I didn’t get, though, was any sense of the women working for him being desperate, the wonderful Sooha Kim, who played Kim, excepted. Perhaps that’s because those scenes are also very, very busy, the focus being on bright lights and showy numbers rather than feeling.
Those scenes certainly provide contrast with the show’s more reflective moments, however, and Miss Saigon is definitely at its best when just one or two people are on stage. Having said that, the evacuation of the American Embassy in the city (done in flashback) is quite remarkable. The helicopter scene is surely one the cleverest and most exciting in any musical anywhere.
The petite Sooha Kim is astonishingly vulnerable as Kim. It’s impossible not to feel for her, especially in the scenes with her son, of whom she is achingly protective. Her voice stretches from soft and plaintive to belting with ease. ‘I’d Give My Life for You’, sung to her son is especially potent. Even in the crowded scenes, even when she’s just ‘there’, she stands out. If her performance doesn’t bring awards there’s no justice.
Her love affair with Chris (Ashley Gilmour) is convincing, and provides a stark contrast with the world around them. As a character, I didn’t feel for him though. I felt even less for his American wife, Ellen, and her dismissal of Kim and all that she stood for. Still, perhaps that’s how I should feel. After all, while Chris initially seems different, but deep down, is he really that much different to the other soldiers with his failure to understand (and even attempt to understand) Vietnamese culture?
Red Concepcion plays the sardonic pimp, the Engineer (“Men will always be men”) to the full. A fixer, sleazy in the extreme and a master manipulator, life for him is about him. He brings moments of humour but is always uneasy humour. He never misses an opportunity to tell us of his wild and unrealistic dreams about what America is; dreams brought to vivid life in the Vegas cabaret-style ‘American Dream’.
Schonberg’s score is rammed with emotion and fits the action perfectly, although I have to say that not a single tune has taken hold in the memory. But don’t let that take anything away. With its story of private love and heartbreaking ending, great effects set against a dramatic historical event, Miss Saigon is a magnificent show.