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Phil Willmott

Review of Miss Saigon

Miss Saigon - Prince Edward Theatre The Eighties are back. Or at least a fine example of the eighties blockbuster musical.

Throughout that decade the producer Cameron Macintosh dominated the West End and Broadway with a series of phenomenally successful shows including Les Mis, which is still very much with us on stage and DVD and Miss Saigon which ran for many years at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. It’s been dusted down and spruced up in a touring production which now arrives at the producers own theatre, the Prince Edward.

The project is the latest example of Macintosh taking a hit show by a top director and remounting it via staff director Laurence Connor, allowing him to keep a tight grip on the helm. And you can really tell this is a labour of love. The production values are exquisite. You won't find a more lavishly staged production in London and it marks a welcome return to the West End of shows with spectacular scenery, sumptuous orchestrations, bewitching lighting and incredible singing.

It also has a smouldering sincerity that’s hard to resist.

The Les Mis writers, Boublil and Schonberg, have based the story on Pucinni's opera Madame Butterfly in which a callous American sailor abandons a geisha girl and the child he conceived with her. They've updated the action to the end of the Vietnamese War when an innocent country girl, Kim, flees an arranged marriage to try her luck as an exotic dancer / prostitute in a seedy club controlled by a shifty wheeler dealer known as The Engineer.

On her very first night she’s forced to parade her assets in a mock beauty contest to crown a Miss Saigon. She attracts a hunky marine called Chris and by dawn they’re in love. Fortune however deals them a series of cruel blows and when Saigon falls to enemy forces, in the musical’s iconic moment Chris is airlifted to safety in a helicopter and the pregnant Kim must fend for herself, hitching her hopes to The Engineer who needs the mixed race child for an American visa. Meanwhile awareness is growing in the states of the plight of children fathered then abandoned in Vietnam and Chris and his new wife journey to meet Kim and her son but what does the future hold for them all?

The casting has always attracted attention and the role of Kim has catapulted former performers to stardom. Everyone’s agreed that Eva Noblezda who alternates the role with Tanya Manalang is another great discovery. She exudes vulnerability and has an effortlessly beautiful singing voice, clear, sweet and spectacular on those top notes and Alistair Brammer is a suitably hunky and simplistic Chris.

Film and stage legend Jonathan Pryce originated the role of the Engineer which caused a huge row at the time as the character is Eurasian and it was felt that a southern Asian actor should have been cast. But Macintosh stuck to his guns, Pryce gave an extraordinary multi-award winning performance on both sides of the Atlantic and the long running, oft replicated show created jobs for thousands of ethnic actors all over the world where ever it was performed. The current Engineer, Jon Jon Briones, has the appropriate cultural background and has been playing the role for decades in various productions. You wouldn't know it though, his performance is so nuanced and energetic it’s as if he’s playing it for the first time.

Audiences have often struggled to like the character of Chris’s wife, Ellen who’s the major obstacle between he and Kim getting together. This new production gives her the evenings only new song and, as sensitively played by Tamsin Carol, we now understand how conflicted a woman she is. I also admired Kwang-Ho Hong as Thuy, Kim’s intended husband, who has a rich, powerful voice and brings an intense dignity to his efforts to win her back. There’s also a huge contingent of beautiful bar girls, sleazy club owners and swaggering GI’s.

I’m no expert on the period and setting but the political implications of America defect in Vietnam and the human cost for both sides seem to me very authentically dramatised in the epic sweep of the evening.

The show is sung through with no dialogue, another very eighties thing, and contains a feast of the very best contemporary musical theatre songs. Most shows get by with only one or two hit ballades. At the Prince Edward you can luxuriate in big beautiful songs like The Movie in my Mind, Why God Why, Sun and Moon and the Last Night of the World in quick succession.

Such a wave of raw emotion ought to be suffocating but the sincerity of the story and production ensure you’ll be overwhelmed by Miss Saigon in the best way possible.

Miss Saigon tickets