It’s likely you’ve heard people sharing their stories of seeing the spectacular Miss Saigon. The spectacle of the set, the costume and the sound/lighting design is one of technical wizardry and firmly puts it ahead of the game in terms of the most astounding productions out there.
Whether it’s a little too much style over substance is a question I’m still trying to answer. The show is written by Boublil and Schönberg, the musical geniuses who brought us Les Miserables. This musical, based on Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, has some similar qualities and characteristics but somehow seems altogether darker (if that’s even possible).
The show follows a Vietnamese girl, Kim, who falls for Chris the American G.I and longs for them to be reunited. They have a child together, but he returns to America and never finds out. The Engineer holds the show together -the brothel/strip-club entrepreneur is determined to find his way to America. He uses Kim from the very first scene – first pimping her out to Chris, then tracking her down for the formidable Thuy (a powerful army officer whose parents had arranged his marriage to Kim before she married Chris), and finally desperately trying to use Kim’s child Tam as his meal ticket to the USA. No spoilers, but if you’re after a happy ending, don’t pick Miss Saigon.
The show is dark from the start – displaying the raw realities of the underbelly of war, with paid sex and violence ‘the norm’. There are few uplifting moments and the show careers from bleak to bleaker. That’s not to say it isn’t thoroughly breathtaking – it absolutely is.
Christian Rey Marbella holds the show together as The Engineer. He brings humour, sleaze and somehow real moments of human desperation to his role – I find myself empathising with an essentially unlikable character, and Marbella’s charm creates this well-rounded portrait.
The rest of the cast are fairly average. Sooha Kim as Kim is a little too shrill and static, and her chemistry with Ashely Gilmour (who plays Chris) is non-existent, which makes their on-stage love feel a little unrealistic. Rob Herron stepped in to understudy the role of John, Chris’s army friend, and does a sterling job of portraying the masculine character. It really is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The power that emanates from the stage in the big ensemble numbers is spectacular. There is a collective force amongst them that really makes this show special.
This magical effect is also down to the amazing set design (concept by Adrian Vaux, but designed for this production by Matt Kinley and Totie Driver). The ever-moving set seamlessly follows the characters to various settings in Vietnam, Bangkok and America. From war zones to brothels to hotel rooms, we’re watching the action as if it were a TV or film set – no cutting corners or expenses spared. This extravagance is truly staggering, though the much-discussed helicopter isn’t really anything to write home about. Aside from that, the intricacy and clever design of the set (plus incredible lighting effects, of course) is second to none.
The orchestra was also stunning, as is often the case in big musical productions. There might not be any big memorable numbers in Miss Saigon, but it’ll definitely give you something to remember.
Don’t miss the show at Bradford Alhambra – it’s on until 20th October.
Photography credited to Johan Persson