So close one could touch the stage, but why is Miss Saigon one of the most loved musicals in town?
Based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, this 1980’s musical of a 1970s Saigon has been revived and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. And on a Thursday afternoon, i took to my seat and awaited the work of Cameron Mackintosh to appear before me. I took my waiting time to contemplate where this musical may possibly fall within my current rankings of performance, which has, to this day, held Billy Elliot, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane’s performance of Lord Of The Rings (2007), the Kneehigh’s performance of Rapunzel (2007) and Angelin Preljocaj’s Snow White, neatly at the top of this list for various reasonings.
Miss Saigon has (officially) joined my list, nearing the very top. Maybe even gaining top-spot. It all began with that same, unexplainable feeling one gets at the theatre as the orchestra, and in this case, of William David Brohn, teases the audience with glimmers of familiar sound, of notes and small tastes of piquant impressions on the ear. Totie Driver and Matt Kinley’s set design, which echoes that of Adrian Vaux (original set design), stands tall and entirely untouched by modernity or imperfection. Reminiscent of the sort of set decoration which won an Oscar for The Apartment (Billy Wilder)- rich and fulfilling, or at least that was what one was to soon discover.
How can one possibly rule a musical the best? And then, among the new cast, Eva Noblezada, Alistair Brammer and Jon Jon Briones, come together with the crew in a way which is so entirely disconcertingly great, that the performance becomes sickeningly perfect. The music quite literally carries the almost non-speaking performance. The songs are what one would expect of such a West End Piece, but also envelops much more. . In all its West End glory, each song and is crafted and acted, with powerfully enchanting music and generates some sort of emotional chain reaction between character and audience. A story of love, war, loss, empowerment, culture, of choices and prejudice. A poignant struggle which falls in-between complex acts, which on the surface, is easily confronted with bug musical numbers, but this is no show of catchy tunes and no backbone.
“[The cast and] crew [come together] in a way which is so entirely disconcertingly great, that the performance becomes sickeningly perfect.”
We laughed, we cried. Beguiled by The Entertainer and enticed by the girls, as we contemplate whether we’re as flexible. It is a piece of more complexity than what one deems to write this piece as. Possibly, as a future venture, i’ll write another critical-analysis, on a musical for once, studying carefully, the marriage between performer and choreography, sound and staging and every aspect imaginable. But for now, i will instead, write as i begun.
Wherever one looks, there’s a GI with a girl, there’s a neon sign hanging with prestige. There are little details on stage and beautifully beaded costumes. There’s a story of self-preservation and there’s a fusion of moving image with a hauntingly accurate projection of children. We travel to Bangkok, Atlanta and to Ho Chi Minh city, but never get lost in the theatrical vortex of travel. We remain grounded as an audience. Forever acquainted with where in the world the story is. We’re even taken back, a short snapshot to a past moment in the story, and again, we’re never lost in the passions of love or in the despair of a culture. And there’s a child who embodies the character beyond what one could expect to see on a stage, over a film where a director, or parent may need to prompt actions of some sort. But as it seems, in Miss Saigon, the actor of small child has been so carefully chosen that as you watch, you tear up when he touches his mothers back or when he hangs almost lifelessly in her arms and you often wonder if he’s real. It’s not until closing curtain, when he takes his bow and gives a thumbs-up to the audience that you realise his school is most possibly round the corner and that he may spend his weekends off, following his parents around Borough Market or Primrose Hill.
It is no surprise that the rest of the cast have also been well selected. There is a rawness in Miss Saigon. Vulnerability and enticingly seductive, play hand in hand. Eva Noblezada embodies the naive. She’s fresh and rather quiet. And then she opens her mouth, sings and captivates an audience who may barely believe that this petite framed gir has only just reached her nineteenth birthday. Rachelle Ann Go embodies the more provocative alongside the other female cast, and yet despite the rawness, this is far from a dirty-show. It’s tasteful and there is a fluidity which comes from this well rehearsed, well choreographed performance.
There is a lighting sequence which revolves around The Entertainer in one of the best choreographed pieces of lighting-staging i have witnessed in some time outside of film in recent years. The club-scenes are both exciting and pragmatic whilst military scenes and those involving a red-dragoon, are tightly choreographed. But the most powerful scene may just be that of the embassy gates. Vietnamese civilians pound the gates and the audience is moved from the inside to the outside and back again as the gates are moved. Civilians hang and move in slow motion as Chris fights for his love.
This becomes one of those theatrical phenomenas which falls in the same category as the much anticipated highlights of musicals. The Lion King has its elephant, War Horse has it’s horse, The Phantom Of The Opera has the chandelier and Miss Saigon has the helicopter. On Old Compton Street, as the people walk around and theatre-goers are seated, the sounds and lights of a helicopter dance around the auditorium.Then this spectacle of a helicopter charges at the audience, or at least is feared to. But rest assured, it remains in place and along with the smells of Saigon days and corrugated roofs, adds another dimension, texture and burst of reality into this 1930’s space. Chris is forced to leave his love behind, in war-town Saigon and the audience is left with chills down their spines as they’ve materialised in Vietnam. This is the power of British theatre.
There’s a great technicality which plays well and it seems that I wasn’t the only one moved by the performance. It may have the most minor of flaws, or at least that is is somewhat more glamorised, but it’s theatre. If you’re after something more raw, watch Good Morning Vietnam, but to be impressed in this exemplary tale, Miss Saigon is in theatres now!