It’s that difficult second album! After the mega success of Les Miserables (which was, in reality, slow to take off and had a rocky passage into the West End) writers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg hit the jackpot a second time with their 1989 musical Miss Saigon. This was revived for a 25th anniversary production in 2014 and a gala performance from that run forms the basis of this filmed version which can now be accessed online. Initially causing controversy over its casting of non-Asian actors to play leading roles and for its depiction of women it is now regarded in some quarters as superior to Les Mis so high time for a reappraisal.
To anyone who knows their key operas well (present company excepted) the plot will be familiar. It’s basically Puccini’s Madame Butterfly relocated from Japan to war torn Vietnam in the 1970s. An American GI falls for a Vietnamese bar girl and a child is conceived. He returns to the States, but she regards them as married and in the aftermath of the conflict wants to entrust their son to his care. Highly melodramatic in the way of many an opera it nevertheless uses the modern musical idiom to tell its story of thwarted love as it plays out against the background of what the Vietnamese refer to as the American War. For the composers it all started with a photo of a young Vietnamese mother at an airport sending her child to his American father. This idea of sacrifice permeates all the characters and actions in the show, or in the case of the Engineer is shown through the mirror image of self-interest and greed.
Schönberg’s score soars with intensity and I was surprised how much of it came back to me as the show progressed – it must have lodged somewhere in the hippocampus. Although the lyrics (English translation by Richard Maltby Jr.) perhaps lack some of the range and wit of Les Mis, they still do an efficient job. The production is memorably and spectacularly stylish although director Laurence Connor plainly does not try and outdo Nicholas Hytner’s original. The victory march of the Communist forces and the visual high spot, the helicopter that removes the last Americans from the embassy roof in Saigon, are present and correct. The intentionally overblown excess of the big production number “The American Dream” also dazzles as the giant statue of Ho Chi Minh is replaced by an uglified version of the Statue of Liberty.
Like Lea Salonga before her, Eva Noblezada is a major find in the role of Kim. Just 18 when she took on the part she manages to convince as both the innocent country girl and the distraught mother who will sacrifice all for her child. Her voice is rich and rounded for one quite so young as she effortlessly belts out ballad after ballad, but she also manages to do the quieter more lyrical passages justice. Alistair Brammer sounds and looks good as Chris but perhaps doesn’t quite convince in the more angst-ridden moments for the character. Jon Jon Briones is superb as the Engineer, oiling and snaking his way around town hustling and using whoever he encounters. Jonathan Pryce was pretty memorable in the original (and not always for the right reasons) but Briones eclipses the memory and makes the part his own. Tamsin Carroll makes a belated entry into the show as Chris’s American wife Ellen but apart from one big number in Act Two doesn’t have that much to do. The reverse fate befalls Rachelle Ann Go as number one bar girl Gigi who delivers a stunning duet with Noblezada on “The Movie In My Mind” in the first half hour and then, unaccountably, the character disappears from the action. Perhaps it’s a Boublil and Schönberg “thing” (cf Fantine in Les Mis).
I found the show more striking and enjoyable than I had remembered which was a pleasant surprise and I was particularly struck by the intensity of the performances. The huge ensemble is well used, and the street/bar scenes seem so crammed with incident that I found myself wishing I could look at the stage as I wished to, rather than through the lens of the film director’s camera. In fact, there are altogether a few too many cinematic tricks used in this filmed version for my liking. Superimposing is used to convey the bustle of both Saigon and Bangkok and the horrors of the war. Although this is quite visually arresting it can also distract and means that the end product tips over into not being representative of the musical as staged. It’s perhaps surprising that a full-blown film version of Miss Saigon has yet to materialise. I recall seeing rumours five or so years ago that Danny Boyle was in talks to direct one but possibly the quite explicit criticism levelled at the USA does not make raising finance an easy prospect. Until then this hybrid staged/filmed version will have to suffice and if it’s on your “to see” list you shouldn’t be disappointed.
Miss Saigon is available on streaming service Broadway HD – click here
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