23 March 2007

Miss Saigon

Miss Saigon
Michael Coppel Ventures and
Louise Withers & Associates
28 March 2007
Her Majesty’s Theatre


Miss Saigon is a simply superb and I dare even the most jaded of theatre goers not to love it. It’s about power and grief and situations where you cannot imagine a happy ending, even though your heart and mind search for a way to make it all work out. The outstanding cast are a balance between fresh and experienced performers and the, much anticipated, new staging adds moments that could not have been imagined in the original.
 
Anyone who has read anything of mine knows that I have some issues with commercial theatre – but when it’s done right – it’s done right. There are reasons why Miss Saigon has been consistently running all over the world since 1989.
 
The power of Miss Saigon is in the writing. Spectacle will never compensate for bad writing. The book is structured to reveal every piece of information at exactly the right time, with a balance of emotion that builds, relieves and rebuilds tension to its ultimate breaking point. Its themes and story continue to resonate on so many levels, as it contrasts the personal with a very political understanding of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
 
Its French origins are evident with references to the French occupation of Vietnam, as well as a bitter satirical stream of anger towards “Uncle Ho” and “Uncle Sam”. It may be one of the most powerful pieces I’ve seen about refugees and the fear and desperation that makes people want to leave their homes.
 
This is balanced with an understanding of the unimaginable chaos, control and freedom experienced by the fighting American soldiers. Chris and John are young men who are happy “getting stoned and waking up with some whore”, but their lives are changed so profoundly by their experiences in Saigon.
 
And, of course, it’s ultimately a love story. Chris, Kim and Ellen: if you hated any of them, it would be an easy story to resolve, but we are always allowed to see their flaws and their strengths. These are characters whose actions you understand; even when you know that they are making choices that are going to cause pain and grief.
 
This production does use many theatrical and dramatic clichés. Sunsets, ghosts, guns, weddings and adorable children are all there. However, there is a difference between the uses of a cliché for effect, compared to the use of an archetypal image because of its universal reach. (I still can’t believe that a walk into the sunset made me cry.)
 
And, yes, it is a toe-tapping, hum-along musical. Music can reach ours souls instantly. Words have to go though the brain first. Maybe this is why music can tell the most epic and tragic of stories so effectively. The music isn’t as memorable as Les Miserables (the other great musical by Boublil and Schonberg), but it serves the story and characters perfectly.
 
Laurie Cadevida (Kim), Leo Tavarro Valdez (The Engineer) and Juan Jackson (John) are all unforgettable. Each has played their role in various international productions of Miss Saigon. Their experience and understanding of their characters is evident. It is such a skill to make a character believable and sympathetic when they are prone to burst into song.
 
The imported cast members are ideally balanced by the Australian cast. The emotion and strength David Harris brings to Chris fare outweighs the one or two notes he missed. He will quickly settle into this role and make Chris his own. Christina Tan (Gi Gi), PJ Rosales (Thuy) and Sophie Katinis (Ellen) all bring a depth to their roles that may soon surpass the experienced cast members. They show us their characters souls through their songs.
 
The supporting cast and chorus are still the ones who make or break a big show. It only takes one chorus member to drop their energy to ruin the show for everyone. This cast make the show. Each person on the stage is as strong and believable and the principals. Having seen many of the understudies in supporting roles, I suspect that audiences lucky enough to them perform the leads will be in for some amazing performances.
 
The new design is ideal for smaller stages, but it never looks like a compromise. It’s no secret that the famous US evacuation helicopter scene is now done using projections. What makes this so amazing is the 3-D technology used. It could have looked so cheap and so bad, but this is phenomenally effective. Projections are also used to boost the emotion of “Bui Doi” and add a new depth of satire to “The American Dream”. The animation used in this number was created by Gerald Scarfe, who designed and directed Pink Floyd's, The Wall.
 
I have spoken to other people who have seen this production from the balconies. Their response wasn’t as enthusiastic as mine. There appear to have been some problems with sound. I really hope that the power of this Miss Saigon isn’t lost as the ticket prices go down for a view from the gods.
 
It is expensive to see this style of show, especially if you are caught up with the additional expense of programs and merchandise. But if you are going to see one expensive show this year, this one is worth is. Just give the extras a miss and use that money to go and see a few smaller, independent productions as well.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

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