Helicopter

The iconic Miss Saigon helicopter scene depicting the final US withdrawal from Saigon leaving distraught South Vietnamese at the embassy gates and facing an uncertain future.

Picture: Cameron Mackintosh Ltd.

Miss Saigon

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s reworking of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly has rightly earned its place in the pantheon of musical theatre, one for any bucket list of shows to see before you die.

This latest Cameron Mackintosh production is a magnificent big budget spectacular – it even costs £100,000 a time to move the sets from theatre to theatre in 14 artics – and it has settled in for a summer-long stay in Birmingham where it will be seen by more than 100,000 people.

Puccini’s opera, set in 1904 in Nagasaki – a city finding tragic unwanted fame 41 years later – tells of a marriage, between Pinkerton, a US navy lieutenant, who sees the union as more of a rental agreement, and a teenage geisha.

Schönberg and Boublil move the story to Saigon in 1975 as the senseless war that had been going on for more than 30 years against the Japanese, the French and finally the Americans was coming to its chaotic end.

Geisha Cio-cio-san, Madame Butterfly, became the reluctant Saigon bargirl Kim, Miss Saigon, while the arrogant, unlikeable Pinkerton who abandons his ‘wife’, becomes a more sensitive and credible GI Chris, who tries desperately and unsuccessfully to take Kim with him back to the USA as Saigon finally falls to the Viet Cong.

Echoing Butterfly Chris returns to the USA, marries and then discovers he has a child he left behind, Tam, played on Press night by Gerline Rosales. Chris still has nightmares, sometimes crying out the name of a woman he once loved and perhaps still does, and now there is a child he never knew existed, and his new wife Ellen, the woman he loves now. With no real solution in sight he sets off with Ellen, to find Kim, now a bargirl in Bangkok, and his child, a journey which sets in train the tale’s inevitable, tragic conclusion. 

chris and kim

Ashley Gilmour as GI Chris finds love amid the despair of war with Sooha Kim's innocent Kim. Picture: Johan Persson

Ashley Gilmour gives us a Chris who is disillusioned with a war he cannot understand and who finds no pleasure in the easy sex provided, at a price, by The Engineer, the flamboyant pimp at the Dreamland night club-cum-brothel. He also displays a fine voice in songs such as Why God Why and the romantic duets Sun and Moon and The Last Night of the World with Kim.

And what a Kim! The diminutive Sooha Kim, who has the distinction of being the only Korean actress to sing the role in both English and Japanese, has a quite lovely voice, clear and pure as a bell, full of emotion and power in her duets and songs such I’d Give my life for you and the sad Little God of my heart to her son Tam, and the bittersweet  prostitute's lament, The Movie in My Mind, started by the excellent Marsha Songcome as hard-nosed stripper Gigi. The pair turn the emotive song into a real show stopper.

Sooha couples that with a delightful air of innocence and vulnerability to make her totally believable as a naive country girl arriving in Saigon and taken in, or perhaps more accurately, entrapped, by The Engineer who sees a virgin teen as a remarkably valuable asset in his sex business.

And Red Concepcion is a splendid Engineer, the sleazy half Vietnamese, half French, peddler of dreams, drugs and dames, providing, cash up front, moments of escape to battle worn US marines. His is a life of deals and pragmatism, with principles and allegiances that, Vicar of Bray like, can change to suit whoever is in charge or has a wad of dollars . . . or is holding a gun. Anything for survival, or a quick buck.

His mother was a whore, he tells us, and he pimped for her, and years later he is still happily at home in the gutter, dreaming of going to the USA and hitting the big time. We should despise him but in Concepcion’s hands he becomes a likeable rogue, which is perhaps how he survives the war, and the peace, by being an amusing diversion, and a man who will do, or find, anything, or anyone for money.

His glitzy, Broadway style big number, The American Dream, is one of the highlights of the show. For those who know Butterfly, he is Saigon’s Goro, the matchmaker.

There is good support from Ryan O’Gorman as John, (Sharpless in Butterfly) Chris’s friend, first as his comrade in arms as a loud, bandannaed marine and, war over, as a worker for Bui Doi (dust of life) a fictional organisation tracking fathers and the children left behind by US citizens.

engineer

The American dream for the congenitally optimistic pimp Engineer played by Red Concepcion. Picture: Johan Persson 

O’Gorman, with a fine voice in the stirring anthem Bui Doi, creates a wonderful contrast between the gung-ho marine who lived life knowing every day could be his last and the more restrained and responsible charity worker.

Gerald Santos is a delightfully despicable Thuy, Kim’s cousin to whom she was betrothed, who rises to Commissar in the new Communist regime and refuses to give her up, a fatal mistake as it turns out, while Zoë Doano gives the part of Chris’s new wife Ellen some heart and a lovely voice as she questions the relationships of Kim, Chris and herself as well as the complication of Tam with the heartfelt  Maybe.

Behind them all is a terrific ensemble, more than 30 strong, who provide everything from military parades to Broadway chorus lines along with some wonderfully sounding and well rounded vocals, as well as The Engineer’s dancing girls.

An excellent 15 strong orchestra under James McKeon gives the sound real body and texture – size really does matter - while the clever set design from Adrian Vaux, Totie Driver and Matt Kinley is not only flexible and ingeniously impressive but helps to keep up a relentless pace – and then there is that iconic helicopter which lands in the American Embassy compound and takes off again vanishing into the skies, or flies in this case, carrying out the last US personnel, leaving the distraught Vietnamese, including Kim, behind.

Indeed all the technicals were admirable from a well-balanced and clear sound from Mick Potter to the lighting of Bruno Poet which added drama and atmosphere to every scene whether brash strip club or single spot definition.

Director Laurence Connor and tour director Jean-Pierre Van Der Spuy pace things well providing urgency when needed balanced by calmer more reflective moments, after all this is a love story as well as a war drama about the fall of Saigon, and, unlike Pinkerton, Chris cares.

All the ingredients are there in abundance for a first class show and I marvelled at the superb acting and voices, dramatic set and all that has gone into what is a spectacular production but somehow I was an observer, an amazed and appreciative one admittedly, but, apart from a few moments when your heart went out to Kim or Chris, I never really became emotionally involved.

That being said, quite a few people were wiping eyes at the end, so maybe I have become an old cynic in my dotage, but whether it tugs at the heartstrings or not this is a wonderful musical with all the fine production values you associate with any Cameron Mackintosh show. A spontaneous standing ovation said it all. Theatre at its best until 23-09-17.

Roger Clarke

01-08-17 

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