Sordid glamour, beautiful sex workers, gunfire, roistering G.I s and, of course, that helicopter – this can only mean one thing. Yes, 15 years after its West End closure, Miss Saigon is back!
Based on Madame Butterfly, the tale of a young Vietnamese girl abandoned by her soldier lover after the American evacuation of Vietnam in 1975 is strangely as relevant and fresh as it was back in 1989 when the show first opened. And Cameron Mackintosh’s barnstorming production makes sure that Miss Saigon is a show to take your breath away, if not necessarily to remember. This is theatre as spectacle; the action comes thick and fast, the sets are dazzling, everything is loud and there is so much happening on stage that it is impossible to take it all in. The production is slick, especially considering the technical enormity of the set design, and the sheer bombast of it all is enough to make your head spin.
Boublil and Schonberg’s score is grandiose and superbly orchestrated, but the lyrics themselves are overly simplistic, and the conceit of absolutely every action, however small, being narrated in song soon becomes tedious. Sadly, it also detracts from the poignancy of the story. The abused, downtrodden girls in the brothels perform rambunctious, jolly, athletic numbers, leaping onto tables and seducing their clients with gay abandon. People pause in their atrocities to explain, musically, what they are about to do. Music usually intensifies emotions, but it is hard to believe in a character’s suffering when they are describing it so volubly and so loudly. Even the much vaunted new number, Maybe, about the difficulties of forgiving an errant husband, lacks emotional resonance, and Bui Doi, a song about the mixed race children abandoned after the war accompanied by heart wrenching videos of orphans seems merely contrived.
This sentimental detachment is in no way a reflection on the ability of the cast. In fact, the great revelation of this revival is the performance of young Eva Noblezada as Kim, the eponymous heroine. The extraordinary strength and purity of her voice adds another dimension to her already impressive acting skills, and her character’s mixture of naivety, apprehension and courage is touching and very believable. Her scenes with Alistair Brammer as G.I. Chris are moving, although his strength lies rather in his very fine voice than in his thespian skills. Jon Jon Briones adds a welcome touch of humour and humanity as the amoral, sinister pimp, The Engineer. He squirms and skulks about the stage, a picture of seedy determination and self-preservation, and his rendering of his big, blisteringly cynical number The American Dream is probably the most memorable moment of the evening. Every single person on the stage, and they are many, is both note and step perfect and helps the show to burst with energy and brio.
Miss Saigon is unarguably a triumph of Musical Theatre razzmatazz. It’s Big, it’s Brash and it’s Brassy, but ultimately it fails to tug on the heartstrings.
Review by Genni Trickett
Prince Edward Theatre
28 Old Compton Street, Soho, London, W1D 4HS
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Running Time: 2 Hours 40 Minutes
Age Restrictions: Suitable for ages 12+