First published in The Times, Tuesday January 23 2017
Miss Saigon, the Vietnam-set musical based on Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, is the long-running proof that theatrical lightning can strike twice. Prior to its premiere in the West End in 1989, few expected Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil to come close to the success of Les Misérables, their previous smash. Yet, despite teething problems, including controversies surrounding the casting of Caucasian actors in Asian roles, the story of a doomed love affair between a young Vietnamese woman and an American GI has proved every bit as durable as its predecessor.
In terms of spectacle, production values and performance, this UK touring production, based on the 2014 London revival and directed by Laurence Connor, is little short of impeccable. The set pieces, including the famous sequence dramatising the fall of Saigon, in which a life-sized helicopter is seen hovering over the stage, rotor blades beating, remain as thrilling as ever. The more intimate scenes are accomplished with the same attention to detail, and the whole package is elevated by Bob Avian’s diverse musical staging, shimmering orchestral playing and beautiful lighting designed by Bruno Poet.
Pic: Johan Persson
In Red Concepción, who plays the linchpin role of the Engineer, the wily Saigon pimp who dreams of a life of excess in America, and Sooha Kim, playing Kim, the 17-year-old bargirl who falls in love with Chris (Ashley Gilmour), a young sergeant, the production boasts a couple of bona fide star turns. Concepción’s characterisation of the Engineer as a mix of rapaciousness, casual cruelty and tragic delusion is shown off to the full in the brilliantly staged final act showstopper, The American Dream, while Kim captures an appealing blend of innocence, anger and resolve in her role.
Pic: Johan Persson
For all of this production’s sheen, reservations remain about the content of the show. With its roots in opera (Schönberg and Boublil’s oeuvre has been referred to as “popera”), the dramatis personae rarely break free from their archetypal limits: as in Les Mis the characters begin and end the story as either good or bad. Although Connor lobs a few barbs at the United States’ culture and self-image (at one point the Engineer shouts “Make America great again!”), the show’s exhausting emotional pitch could use some leavening irony. Some musical numbers walk a fine line between sincerity and schmaltz.
All of this leads to an exasperating imbalance in the piece overall: a triumph of spectacle over substance. The ensemble works hard, the principals are strong, and the story is, at times, affecting. Nonetheless, on leaving the theatre, it is not so much the star-crossed lovers that stay in the mind but the iconic technical feat of the helicopter, roaring and whirring above the stage.