Miss Saigon is one of those classic shows that has earned its place in the stage hall of fame, and its reputation goes before it. I was lucky enough to see it in 1997 on Broadway when I was 19, and it was a pretty overwhelming experience for a couple of European girls who had been locked away working on a kids camp in Ohio for the summer! Cameron Mackintosh presents this version of the Boublil and Schönberg musical which is embarking on a major UK tour, and this time I got to watch it a little closer to home at the Bristol Hippodrome.
Miss Saigon is based on Puccini’s 1903 opera Madame Butterfly, and tells the story of 17 year old Kim, an innocent girl who is forced to work in a Saigon bar as a prostitute by the charismatic but morally bankrupt character The Engineer. The Vietnam War is in its final days and many of the women in the bar are hoping for their ticket out, desperate for any of the American GIs to take them back with them to America and hoping for a better life. Kim meets and falls in love with an American GI called Chris who seems to return her feelings, but they are torn apart by the fall of Saigon. Stranded without the man she fell in love with, she must find a way to survive and keep the hope alive that Chris will return for her, but all the while he has no idea he has fathered a son.
This is a particularly lavish and spectacular production with a huge company of 60. The sets are incredible and manage to powerfully evoke a sense of place. A woman sat next to us spoke in the interval about how wonderfully overwhelming it all was, she was totally immersed in it all and waxed lyrical about how much she was loving the show. I’ll admit that I don’t remember much about the version I saw in New York over twenty years ago, but one scene that did stick in my mind was the when the helicopter descends over the US embassy as it is evacuated and the last US troops are leaving Saigon. I won’t spoil it by saying too much, but the way this scene is executed is breathtakingly good.
The cast of this production are wonderful, and it is hard to pick out a standout performer, as they were all excellent. Sooha Kim who plays Kim has the voice of a songbird and manages to portray the innocence and inner strength of the character to perfection. Ashley Gilmour plays Chris, the character based on Pinkerton from Madame Butterfly. In Puccini’s version, Pinkerton is a thoroughly unlikeable character, but Chris is a much more fleshed out and complex man. You know he is flawed, but you can forgive him as its easy to see his internal conflicts and how much he is torn by what he has seen, what he leaves behind and what he needs to do to survive himself back home. However, if I was pushed to name the star of the show I think that most of my fellow theatre goers would agree with me in naming Red Concepión who plays The Engineer as the star of the show. Although I did question it a little as a character who is essentially a scheming, manipulating pimp got the biggest cheer of the night with his version of the song The American Dream, the flamboyance of the character makes him incredibly appealing. As with other characters in the show, the beauty lies in the realisation that even this unsavoury character is a product of his circumstances and is just doing what he can to survive like everyone else.
One critique I would have of the show is a technical one, and is down to the sound quality. I found it hard to make out some of the dialogue as sung by the cast, and it seemed that they didn’t quite have the levels correct within the auditorium, although things did seem to be clearer in the second half. I checked with my three friends who were also in the audience, and they agreed with me so it definitely wasn’t just my ears! Perhaps this is something that the Hippodrome team could do with tweaking as the run continues? However, the incredible staging and cast more than made up for any small issues with the sound.
Although first performed in 1989 when the Vietnam War was still causing reverberations in the USA and around the world because of the displaced population and the consequences of conflict on its veterans, the central themes of the show could relate to any war. How many countless innocents and fatherless children have been tragically caught up in the Syrian conflict? It’s a powerful point that the show makes, as we see how the West exploited the East during this conflict and although the boys who fought in Vietnam (19, we all know the Paul Hardcastle tune, right?) were often left scarred both physically and mentally, the suffering of innocent women and children was devastating. So, not an easy watch or a fluffy musical by any stretch of the imagination, but it is incredibly powerful. See it if you can, but I would imagine those tickets will be hard to come by.
Miss Saigon is on at the Bristol Hippodrome until 23rd June, and you can get tickets here.
Review by Karen Blake