You might find it hard to believe, gentle reader, but we’ve never seen Miss Saigon before. How on earth could you possibly have missed it out, you might ask? I think it’s because we weren’t overly fussed on Les Miserables when we first saw it (how times have changed) and productions of Miss Saigon – which was written by the same creative team as Les Mis – have always been atrociously expensive; basically, we always thought we’d get more “bang for our buck” elsewhere. But the news of the new touring production, starting life just up the road at Leicester, was too much temptation. So, Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friend Lady Lichfield, decided to take a punt on it.
As you doubtless know, it’s a modern take on the old favourite, Madame Butterfly. GI Chris is out in Vietnam where he falls in love with Kim, a bargirl. They quickly get married but then are separated and he returns to the US without any knowledge of her whereabouts. But she never gives up hope. Three years later, word reaches John, Chris’s wartime colleague, (via The Engineer, the pimp who used to run the Saigon bar) that Kim is still alive – and that she has little three-year-old Tam. Trouble is, Chris has now married Ellen… I won’t tell you what happens next, but if you work it back from the story of Madame Butterfly, then you’ll realise it’s not going to have a happy ending.
My first reaction was, how could I have let the last 28 years go by and not seen it? It’s not a perfect show by any means, but the story is so believable – this kind of love/separation/fatherless child syndrome must have been very common. This current production is simply magnificent and I was absolutely caught up in it from the start. Our interval Sauvignon Blanc was spent with my being surprised that my theatre companions weren’t enjoying it quite as much as me – not liking much of the music, finding it very samey; to be honest, I thought many of the lyrics erred on the trite side, but I was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt. But what a second act! It all becomes immense. After the gloopy Bui Doi scene, which made me think of Michael Jackson singing some kind of “we all love the world and all the children” song, the story gathers pace at a bewildering rate. Hope turns to tragedy, and The Engineer has a show-stopping sensational number which takes the American Dream, wrings every ounce of humanity out of it and renders it fabulously gross. And I genuinely don’t think there was a dry eye in the house at the end of the show – certainly not from any of us three.
It was fascinating to note not only the plotline similarities with Madame Butterfly, but also the structural similarities with Les Mis. Huge scene big numbers like The Morning of the Dragon echo the barricades of Revolutionary Paris, with the stark death of Thuy providing a similar shock value as the death of Gavroche; the role of The Engineer has many parallels with Thenardier’s Master of the House; and both musicals end with a nod toward the future, although there’s a stark contrast between the nature of the deaths of Jean Valjean and Kim.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen the huge stage of the Curve theatre used with such impact as with this show. Totie Driver and Matt Kinley’s amazing set intimidates and beguiles; it closes in for the very intimate scenes between Chris and Kim, and backs away to reveal a stage area big enough for twenty-four or more burly-clad lads representing a dancing, victorious, communist army. The musical staging is by A Chorus Line’s very own Bob Avian and you can absolutely see his stamp all over it. The lighting is dynamic and dramatic; the costumes are superb and the fifteen-member orchestra is on superb form. There are two stunning visual effects that take your breath away – the helicopter that takes Chris and the other US soldiers into the sky is so realistically represented you can almost feel the wind from its wings; and the disembodied figure of Thuy’s ghost that comes to Kim in a dream and slowly floats into the set, gains form and then walks down the stairs, is spine-tingling. Here you will find all the usual hallmarks of a superbly crafted, no expense spared, Cameron Mackintosh production.
At the heart of the show is the tragic Kim, played by Sooha Kim. She has an extraordinarily powerful voice and sings the role absolutely superbly. She has the ability to mess with your heartstrings and you really feel all the emotions she does – the initial disgust at working in “Dreamland”, the joy of her love for Chris, the devastation of realising he is married, the panic that makes her kill Thuy; they’re all stunning scenes and played with total conviction. Ashley Gilmour plays Chris as a GI a cut above the rest, emphasising the decency and honour of the character, which of course only makes his later plight all the more painful. He and Miss Kim have a great on-stage chemistry together and the intimacy of their love scenes is very convincing – and enchanting to watch. There’s also a stand-out scene where Chris and new wife Ellen are in bed together in Atlanta, singing a trio with Kim in the wastes of Ho Chi Minh City; emotionally gripping, musically stunning.
Ryan O’Gorman is a great choice to play GI John, with a great natural authority that gives him absolute credibility in those wartime scenes, as well as the more respectable, mature John who fronts the (still toe-curling) Bui Doi conference in Atlanta, and stands alongside his friend in his hour of need as he comes to terms with finding out about Kim and Tam. Zoe Doano is excellent as Ellen, especially in that painful scene where she and Kim meet in the hotel room and she discovers that Chris has been economical with the truth; and there’s also a fine performance by Gerald Santos as Thuy, both as the wretched North Vietnamese soldier of peasant stock come to take Kim back, and as the clean-cut military commissar out to seek vengeance on those who crossed him. All the ensemble give great performances – I particularly liked the attitude of all those Dreamland girls, very nicely done; but everyone was terrific.
But the show belongs to Red Concepcion as The Engineer – a dream of a role for the right performer and Mr C certainly is that. Manipulating everyone with whom he comes into contact in the hope that he might somehow obtain an American visa, he gleefully doesn’t care who suffers in the process. Deliciously slimy, sexually ambivalent, willing to degrade himself in any way in pursuit of the Yankee Dollar, his highlight comes with the American Dream number where the luscious fruit of his ambition grows disgustingly over-ripe with this mesmerically self-indulgent paean to riches. You’ve never seen a man love a car in the way he does. He’s completely gross and completely brilliant.
Yes, some of the music might be a little generic-musical, and yes, in comparison with the stimulating and intense lyrics of Les Miserables, some of these lyrics are over-simplified and trite; but all this is nothing as to the emotional surge that the story, the setting and the performers provide. I absolutely loved it. This production is only just starting and it has a long national (and international!) tour that goes on till September 2018, visiting Birmingham, Dublin, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Southampton, Manchester, Bristol, Plymouth and Norwich. Get booking now, you won’t regret it.
P. S. It’s great to see the Curve Café used by the cast both before and after the show. I was waiting for my two teas and a cappuccino and was aware that I was standing next to Mr Gilmour and Miss Kim. Mr Gilmour was obviously hungry: “feed me” he implored of the waiting staff; “feed me, Seymour, feed me now” replied Miss Kim, which is precisely the same thing Mrs Chrisparkle and I say when we’re starving. She went on to ask Mr Gilmour whether the plant in Little Shop of Horrors has a name. Neither of them could think of it. I had to stop myself from butting in with “it’s Audrey! Audrey II in fact, because the first Audrey dies early in the show” – because that would have meant I was listening in to their conversation, which of course would have been rude of me.
P. P. S. After the matinee, a number of the ensemble came out and spread over one of the refectory tables, and had lots of well-deserved food and drink. A plucky family from the audience approached one of the cast and asked for selfies and had a chat and the cast member (I couldn’t quite see who it was) was extremely obliging and friendly. And then I saw something I’d never seen before. The lady from the happy family gave the cast member a £5 tip. “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly….” started the ensemble lady, “oh yes, you must”, insisted the happy punter. Well, we do it in a restaurant, why not at the theatre?
Production rehearsal photos by Manuel Harlan