The Heat is On in Miss Saigon! An operatic epic inspired by a Puccini opera, Miss Saigon is visually and vocally spectacular: Madame Butterfly with bargirls and G.I.s, it tells the tragic tale of Kim and Chris, a romance grown and gutted by the violence of the Vietnam War.
Miss Saigon shares more than its music-makers with Les Misérables: from Schönberg’s motif-rich music to Boublil’s overlying lyrics, Miss Saigon is also sung-through, has a thieving entertainer who thrives on surviving – Red Concepción’s Engineer is magnetising – is thrillingly theatrical, and has the same thematic threat of revolution on intimate romance. Yet, far from a French revolution, the Fall of Saigon is a tragedy from only forty years ago: the effects are still felt, the wounds are still raw, and history still hasn’t verified the heroes and villains. The musical is mostly from the perspective of the American G.I.s, with Ashley Gilmour’s gorgeously-sung and agonised Chris at the forefront; it’s their view of Vietnam, their arguably amoral actions, and their misguided guilt that moves most of the plot, without always feeling authentic or appropriate.
The contrasting openings of each act are key: in Act I, the Americans are cavorting with the Vietnamese women like corrupt kings – with the only cost to them what they’re willing to pay for the company, of course – yet, in Act II, they’re venerated veterans campaigning to recouple Amerasian children with the Americans who fathered them in Vietnam. It’s a magnificent piece for a male chorus, regally powered by Ryan O’Gorman’s John, but coupled with projections of real Vietnamese children and the tragedies of the first act, in places it feels more uncomfortable than touchingly genuine. It’s a feeling capitalised on later in the act as three white Americans – John, Chris, and Chris’s wife Ellen, a lovelorn Elana Martin – fight over the future of Kim and her son, as Kim sings to the side, alone.
There is an argument that this is a critical view of Vietnam, but the musical has a controversial conception: the composers and most of the creative team are non-Asian, and some of the original principal cast, including Jonathan Pryce’s Engineer, wore prostheses to make them appear more Asian. This, coupled with the visual spectacles and vocal acrobatics that characterise the musical, magnificent though they are, often make it feel closer to glorification than appreciation. It’s not that Miss Saigon glorifies the G.I.s or vilifies the Vietnamese, but there’s something that feels vaguely uncomfortable about its appropriateness and authenticity. This touring revival aims to reclaim its authenticity: from the costumes, with all the G.I.s’ jackets once worn in action, and all the straw hats from Vietnam or Thailand, to the casting, with actors from 10 countries completing the 38-strong company.
The musical may have an uncomfortable conception but the performances are conceived with passion, power, and empathy across the cast. Acielle Santos’s hard-bitten, battle-hardened Gigi begins the bargirls’ haunting hope with gravity and grit; Gerald Santos’s grave general Thuy is gorgeously-sung; and Red Concepción’s Engineer is a glorious, gluttonous antihero. Sooha Kim is a sympathetic Kim, but finds her power in her voice, as she grows from frightened orphan to protective mother. Gilmour is also somewhat sympathetic, although his character Chris is more pitying than empowering to Kim, but he captures the guilt-filled G.I. with grace, even if the peculiar plotting – there’s also an unannounced three-year gap in Act I, and a Nightmare to fill in the gulf in Act II – allows precious little time for him and Kim to fall in love.
Other than the performances, the most impressive element of the musical is the spectacle: from the cinematic sets to the thrilling effects, the evocative lighting to the powerful choreography and fighting, it’s a visual, orchestral, and vocal feast. Miss Saigon may not be a perfect musical, but it’s impressive, powerful in places, and passionately performed – ‘The Heat is On in Saigon’!