Cameron Mackintosh’s new production of Boublil and Schönberg’s classic musical Miss Saigon opened tonight at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh for a month long run. I am probably one of the few reviewers out there who have not seen this musical in one production or another over the years, and I have heard so many conflicting reviews of it that now was the time to finally make up my own mind.
Miss Saigon is of course based on the Puccini classic Madama Butterfly, but here the early 20th century world of the courtesan Cio-Cio-San and US Navy man B.F. Pinkerton is transposed to Vietnam at the fall of Saigon and Kim’s romance with American GI, Chris. Does the transposition work though? Well for the most part yes, but this incarnation of Butterfly, although just as tragic a figure as Cio-Cio-San, is made of far sterner stuff than her source material. She is a survivor, and watching her family killed and her village destroyed have already made Kim a tough woman in this war, and the continuing degradation that she must endure in order to survive daily means that this “butterfly” has no illusions about the harsh realities of life.
Miss Saigon though does share one common fault with its source material, and that is that the core story is far shorter than the whole time taken to tell it, and by necessity needs a lot of padding out along the way. There is always of course a potential second fault in this story, and that is the updated subject matter itself; if you do not have some familiarity with the history of the conflict in Vietnam and surrounding countries and in particular the fall of Saigon itself then there are elements here that may be elusive to the casual theatre goer. For myself, I so vividly remember the television news images of desperate people trying in vain to get on to the last helicopter to leave the rooftop of the American Embassy.
The first thing that needs to be noted about this production is that it is a huge one on the scale that rarely tours and rarely comes to Edinburgh. A large cast on stage, and an even larger crew behind the scenes ensure that sets, lighting, sound (although that did sound a little muddied and unclear at times tonight for some reason), costumes and special effects were all handled with military precision and timing, plus the luxury of a live orchestra. Miss Saigon is an elaborate and expensive production and it shows everywhere.
Miss Saigon is at its core as simple a story as you can tell, and like all simple stories needs only a few main protagonists, and here our core cast are well suited for their parts and bring out the best performances in one another,
The Engineer (Red Concepción) is utterly ruthless in his exploitation of everyone and everything around him in his pursuit of money and “The American Dream” and his exploitation of Kim as soon as he meets her grimly opens a window upon the sexual exploitation of so many Vietnamese women to satisfy the needs of American troops (or anyone else who could pay his price).
Kim (Sooha Kim) is the one however on whom this whole production rises or falls. As an audience we have to believe in Kim and take an interest in her and the sacrifices that she is willing to make along the way. To care for Kim is at times not too easy as at times she is not too likeable a character, but she is a real one, and it is some of the faults and at times coldness of Kim that make her interesting to me. Kim to me is more than just a single character, she is the representation of all the countless ordinary people who were caught up in a war not of their making as two opposing military super-powers (even if not directly engaging with one another) and diametrically opposed political ideologies fought out a war of attrition on a global scale with whole countries on the chessboards and millions of innocents as pawns. Whoever won this war, it was never going to be the ordinary common person.
Chris (Ashley Gilmour) makes a great counterbalance to Kim, but there is always that feeling that there is a fine line between this being a great love affair set amidst a terrible war and someone who can maybe get Kim a Visa to the USA.
A lot of other cast members of course go to make up this production and there are no weak links here at all. One of my favourites from the rest though is Ryan O'Gorman for his performance of fellow GI and Chris’s commanding officer John.
There are some big production numbers here –like “The American Dream”, but to be honest, I would be happier to have these stripped out and concentrate more on our core characters as there are some wonderful songs here, and if you listen past the noise and visuals of the surrounding action, some of the best and most poignant lyrics written for any musical in a very long time. Oddly though, but in keeping with so many modern performances, there are times when there is volume and power in some of the vocal numbers where I would expect fragility and a softer delivery to reflect the emotions of the words and music.
One of the big set pieces for this show is of course the helicopter evacuation of Saigon. Was it well done? Go and see, I am giving no surprises away here.
There is still a simple story here that can be told just as effectively is a far shorter time frame, but the story here is not really in the spoken words, it is in the lyrics of the songs. These are not throw away words to fill a musical interlude (as so many stage musicals can so easily have). Miss Saigon stripped to its simplest and most basic form works for me because stripped of all its musical numbers there is still a simple (if maybe much shorter) story here to be told.
I have some mixed feelings about Miss Saigon –it’s not a perfect show for me, but when it is good, it is very good, and when you start to add up the separate elements that go into a production this size, you have to concede that the good points are far stronger than any weaker ones here and also recognise the enormous collaborative team that it takes to not only produce a show like this but to take it on tour.
I think, to be honest with myself though, that some of my negatives about this show come from my own personal feelings of the subject of The Vietnam War becoming popular entertainment for the masses. Miss Saigon at least gives beneath its glossy stage performance surface an insight into the ugliness of war and that the people who often suffer the most in any modern war are the non combatants. To also be fair to the show, it received at the end of its performance one of the few standing ovations that I have seen for any musical theatre production in Edinburgh. Tonight’s audience obviously loved this show, and taking that into account plus the many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that go into making a show of this complexity, Miss Saigon still overall gets 5 stars from me.
Review by Tom King