Saturday 7th April 2018 at the Palace Theatre, Manchester.
There’s little to say about Boublil and Schönberg’s Miss Saigon that hasn’t already been said; the consensus has always declared it a supreme theatrical triumph and that is entirely evident in this revival currently touring the UK. What struck me most about this production is its relentless intensity. The story, the dramatic performances, the spectacular visuals and the score all positively soar and never waver. It declares itself a reigning goddess of the theatre world from the outset and it remains high up on that throne for the duration. This incarnation is directed by Laurence Connor and is presented by Cameron Mackintosh and it is surely just as glorious as the original staging.Miss Saigon spans many narratives, from the central love story to the girls caught up in a seedy world hoping for survival; from to the soldiers fighting for a cause they see necessary to the children born of lust within a hellish climate of fighting and uncertainty. Set in the midst of the Vietnam War, the physical conflict frames the emotional conflicts playing out between our protagonists to create a constant sense of bombardment which keeps an audience thoroughly enthralled. Kim, played at this performance by Joreen Bautista, is a country girl who finds herself under the barbed wire wing of chancer, hustler and pimp The Engineer, played by Red Conceptión. While being pawed and passed around in his dive, she is thrust into the arms of the man who will fill her heart and provide the catalyst her fate. All-American soldier boy Chris, played by Ashley Gilmour, is troubled by his situation as a soldier fighting a difficult battle as well as a man increasingly concerned by the illicit behaviours of his comrades. The pair fall into an infatuation and a plan is made for a future together, but war is ever a cruel force upon loving unions and the pair are doomed to face both physical danger and great mental anguish.Playing the role of Kim is surely akin to Juliet, Evita or any other prolific female lead role. Bautista is everything a strong lead should be and then some; a role which requires such variety and depth is a dangerous gift but Bautista is fearless and thoroughly brilliant in the role – in fact, her performance is as relentlessly impressive as the whole production itself. The fact that Bautista is just seventeen years old makes her performance here all the more incredible. Kim is naïve and vulnerable when she arrives and that naïvety is only perpetuated by her instant reliance on Chris for her future – it is the subsequent path her life takes which sees the character develop a grit and a lethal desperation which only ever veils the sweet core of the woman who is essentially still a frightened little girl hopelessly in love. Bautista delivers at every stage of Kim’s narrative arc and she is someone I hope to see as a leading lady again in the future. And though Kim is the real star of this show, Miss Saigon relies heavily on a talented and tireless ensemble to achieve the overall sense of quality; an ensemble who provide an excellent reminder of the vital role of any musical company’s ensemble.Ashley Gilmour captures the turmoil of Chris with great force. With Kim he finds himself unexpectedly disarmed despite his reservations – as a soldier, he finds himself ill-equipped to withstand the personal complications faced when fulfilling professional duties. Post-War, his anguish and nightmares cloud any fresh happiness he finds; the choices of this character invite judgement perhaps even more than with the explicitly exploitative pimp. Gilmour’s performance skilfully places Chris as a focus of both sympathy and disappointment – and perhaps even anger. The Engineer is another layered role here, making Miss Saigon an important piece of musical theatre which demonstrates emotional complexity too often bypassed by some of the more bright eyed and bushy tailed musicals. Red Conceptión has the challenging role of both villain and clown; The Engineer is undoubtedly a self-serving egotist whose frustrations with his own situation lead to violence and exploitation but within this over-arching role, he is also a vehicle for humour in scenes seemingly inspired by the pomp of Liberace. His back story provides a reference point for his unforgivable actions in the present, but it is Red Conceptión’s larger than life performance which somehow convinces an audience to cheer and enjoy a villain.Few productions reach the spectacle heights of Miss Saigon and it’s an excellent team behind such stunning visuals and effects. Production design and design concept by Totie Driver, Matt Kinney and Adrian Vauxhall respectively are brought to fruition by Andreane Neofitou’s costumes which seek to showcase the efforts to appeal to the fantasies of unsexed soldiers while also acknowledging the idealism of the people donning those revealing costumes; faux fur and sunglasses betray the dreams of those whose lives have been destroyed by war. The American Dream is everyone’s dream at Dreamland. Luke Hall’s projections allow the famous helicopter spectacle to remain just as impressive as its first appearance on stage while Bruno Poet’s lighting design is very much responsible for some of the most dramatic and arresting scenes of the piece. Bob Avian’s musical staging has a large cast repeatedly creating the illusion of many more with choreography which is almost threatening in its precision and synchronicity – with the military sequences appearing as intimidating as they are impressive. Accompanying this spectacle, the towering music of Claude-Michel Schönberg (lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr and Alain Boublil) and William David Brohn are gloriously brought to the ears of the enraptured audience under the orchestra direction of James McKeon.Miss Saigon clearly deserves continued longevity – it is a production of the highest quality and the superb emphasis on spectacle will live on in memory for a very long time. The current cast bring this classic tale to life with powerful and emotional performances and the cast features one of the hardest working ensembles I’ve seen in recent years. While it is billed primarily as a romance, Miss Saigon is more than that – it is a gripping tragi-drama and powerhouse musical and the production serves both equally well. If you enjoy deeply dramatic theatre which beautifully lies on the border between drama and sung-through musical, then Miss Saigon should be on your must-see list.
This touring production of Miss Saigon is presented by Cameron Makintosh and tours until November 2018. You can find tickets here.