By Alain Bublil and Claude Michel Schonberg
Perennially sceptical about advance publicity though I am, I have to admit that, for once the promotional hype for this production is well justified – this is a stunning show which doesn’t disappoint.
Audiences look for different things in musical theatre and, while it may seem fanciful to compare a show about the tragic aftermath of the war in Vietnam with Aladdin, for me, a musical has to have many of the same elements as the English pantomimes which were my introduction as a child to ‘big shows’. There has to be a story worth telling, pleasing and effective music, good singing from the leads, a talented and versatile chorus, comic interludes, amazing sets and spectacular technical effects. (I could always do without the blue jokes and cross-dressing.)
Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Miss Saigon has all of these ingredients in spades.
First of all, the story. The antecedents are fascinating – an 1897 story, based on a French popular novel about the betrayal of a geisha in Nagasaki, led to an American play which was produced in London in 1904 and seen by Puccini who went home to Italy to write Madama Butterfly. In 1975 the composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, saw a photo, taken just weeks before the fall of Saigon, of a Vietnamese woman giving up her child at the airport in the hope that a new life would be possible for her daughter in America. This reminder of the ‘collateral damage’ inflicted on native populations by war led Schonberg and his collaborator Alain Boublil back to Puccini’s opera and Pierre Loti’s novel – and Miss Saigon was the result.
Their story is set, not in Japan, but in Vietnam in 1975 at the end of the American involvement in the war. It opens in a brothel where the battle-weary GI Chris is given a present by his friend John of the services of Kim, a fresh country girl new to the game, who has come to the city in order to survive. They quickly fall in love and undergo a form of marriage, planning a future together in America. But Kim is pursued by a man to whom she has been promised who threatens her future.
With the sudden fall of Saigon and the rapid evacuation of US troops from the city, Chris is forced to leave and Kim, unable to get into the American Embassy grounds to join her husband in the helicopter evacuation, is left behind to survive as best she can. Three years later she is supporting herself and the child she had by Chris when she is found by her pursuer, who has now become an officer in the victorious army. Discovering the half American child, he tries to kill him and in desperation Kim shoots her tormentor dead. With the unscrupulous pimp Engineer she escapes Vietnam and is eventually traced to Bangkok by an American aid agency now run by Chris’s friend John. When Kim learns that Chris has found her she envisages a happy future for herself and her child, only to discover that Chris is now happily married to an American girl. Aware that there can be no happy ending for her and caring only for the welfare of her child, she kills herself, knowing that this will enable him to have a future with his father in America.
This updating of the old story works remarkably well. To the account of the suffering and heartbreak that follows any war is added a depiction of the opportunism and degradation that often accompanies the struggle to survive. There are no real villains here; all are victims in one way or another. Unlike Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Chris is no cad and we never doubt his love for Kim, his despair at losing her, his genuine attempts to find her, or his love for his new wife. The post-war anguish and guilt that many veterans feel is embodied in John who has dedicated himself in civilian life to helping the totally innocent child victims of the occupation and conflict. Even the reprehensible Engineer can be seen as an enterprising provider of whatever the market demands.
The music that supports the story is easy to damn with faint praise. There are no hum- able tunes or chart-busting songs – but throughout the music is appropriate, with some lovely lyrical moments and dramatically apt effects. Schonberg is subtle in his evocation of the world in which the story is worked out with no jarringly fake orientalism or syrupy sentiment. The love duets are much closer to opera than pop balladry and are sung quite beautifully by the Laurie Cadevida and David Harris.
The days when singers could get by onstage with only a good voice to recommend them are long gone. Nowadays singers must not only sing well, but move well, act well, dance if required, and look fantastic. Laurie Cadevida is heartbreakingly lovely as Kim, with a soaring, powerful voice that belies her tiny size and fragile appearance. In David Harris she has a good-looking and sympathetic leading man whose voice not only blends beautifully with hers, but who looks totally convincing as a battle-fit soldier. Juan Jackson as his friend John is equally convincing – he has great stage-presence and a superb voice, perfectly suited to the moving reminder that “They are all our children too” – a highlight of the show.
Indeed, one of the joys of the production is the credible look of the cast, whatever their role. The soldiers are big, blokey and muscled, handling weapons as if they knew how to use them and wearing their combat gear confidently. The women are gorgeous; sinuous and also well-muscled in all the right places. The chorus work is demanding, requiring cast members to morph from bar girls and GIs to peasants and soldiers and back again. The opening scene set in a brothel is perhaps the least satisfactory in the show, requiring the girls to twist and gyrate provocatively throughout the long scene – ultimately proving too much of a distraction from what is being said and sung. There is only so much crotch clutching, gratuitous groping and simulated sex that I need to watch before getting the point about the locale, and one can only feel sympathy for the lead characters struggling to retain the audience’s attention amidst such competition.
A far simpler and, for me, more memorable chorus sequence is the huge Viet Cong parade complete with flags, ribbons and a powerfully athletic dance. The simple set for this number, with its beautifully lit brazen image of Ho Chi Minh in the background, typifies the imaginative sets used throughout. In a professional production one expects good work from designers, but the scrupulous attention to detail in both setting and costume design must set new standards in this show. Every aspect of the American equipment is apparently authentic and the Asian sets have been researched down to the minutiae of which bamboo is appropriate for particular locales.
Some of the sets are full of detail; others such as the hotel room with its draped bamboo bed and simple chair are achieved with the minimum of props. This simplicity allows the meeting between Kim and Chris’s wife Helen (a lovely performance by Sophie Katinis) to take place in all its stark and painful reality.
The setting for the Engineer’s “American Dream” sequence is equally imaginative with its effects achieved by the use of blonde showgirls, a staircase for them to dance up and down and evocative back-projections. Leo Valdez’s Engineer is superb in his boundless energy and criminal inventiveness, and this number gives him plenty of scope to shine. Loathsome though he is in many ways, it is the Engineer’s comic determination to survive and start again in America that throws into focus Kim’s desire for a better life for herself and her son. His version of the American dream is the opposite of hers, but we have to accept it as equally valid. Valdez makes the character memorable by making the most of every comic opportunity, but also allowing us glimpses of what failure can mean for even the most determined.
When it comes to special effects of course, everyone is waiting for the chandelier to fall (sorry, wrong show!) – I mean of course the helicopter to land and take off. In the original production this was a show-stopper, and rightly so. In this simpler production, which still requires nearly 50 technical staff, the effect is just as dramatic with superb 3D computer-generated animation and awesome sound. These are used to complement the tricky choreography of a scene that involves taking the audience both within and outside the Embassy gates as chaos reigns and we see re-enacted one of the most memorable moments of the whole sorry war.
The world of Miss Saigon is not the fanciful Orient of the Aladdin of my childhood pantomime days, but the theatrical magic of its evocation is just as powerful. Experience it for yourself if you can.
Production by Cameron Mackintosh
Playing until 15 September 2007: Tues-Sat 7:30pm, Sat 1 Sept 8pm, Matinee Wed-Sat 1:30 pm, Sunday 3pm.
Running time 2 hours 40 minutes including 20 minute interval