Miss Saigon, Bristol Hippodrome and tour

SPECTACULAR, brilliant and legendary are just three of the words in the publicity for this, the completely revamped tour of the second big show by the writers of Les Miserables.

This is the first time I have seen Miss Saigon since just before it closed in 1999, having also seen the very first cast in 1990. I was not as impressed with it as I had been with Les Mis, but looking back I was probably expecting more, indeed, I preferred the third of Boublil and Schonberg’s works, Martin Guerre, which is surely ripe for reworking and revival very soon.

Approaching the show with fresh eyes, and cynically prepared to judge it based on those three big words in the publicity, I was pleasantly surprised to find the show was indeed spectacular, brilliant on many levels, from the fantastic sound and lighting effects to the detailed acting, and surely it has now become its own legend, redesigned, redirected and winning awards worldwide in this new production. It is a far, far better show than I remember the original production being.

At its heart, this is a tender love story, based on Puccini’s Opera Madame Butterfly, which I do not know, and the story is what draws us in and keeps us intimately involved with Vietnamese bargirl Kim and her relationship with American GI Chris. Sooha Kim and Ashley Gilmour play these parts so well we almost forget that they are singing at times. Their initial contact and love for each other is tender, exciting, raw, and the angst of their separation is clear as they meet again in the second half. As the iconic engineer, Red Concepcion brings exactly the right amount of sleaziness and awareness, with a new, warmer, more realistic definition to the role, quite a feat given that it was originated by Jonathan Pryce. His American Dream was the high point of the big production numbers, with Conception carrying most of the song alone on the huge, smoky, spotlit stage, before the showgirls and boys joined in.

Elana Martin plays Chris’s wife Ellen, an important but difficult role, with not much exposure, similar to the Russian wife in Chess. She is a wife, but also the second woman, with strong vocal and acting challenges in a small amount of time. Martin rises to both with ease, particularly in the new song Maybe, written specially for this revival production, and she is a name to look out for.  In the supporting GI role of John, Ryan O’Gorman gives a studied, detailed performance in the more military first act, turning on the compassion in Act Two, beginning with the stirring anthem Bui Doi, a number which also showed the strength and accuracy of the male chorus, their unaccompanied voices clearly audible above any amplification.

Something I had not realised or remembered from the original production was how much good music there is in this show. I had completely forgotten the beautiful ballad Sun and Moon, and Kim and Chris’s other big love song The Last Night of the World was equally moving. The band, led with aplomb and mostly up on his toes by James McKeon, and playing instruments from Asian flutes and skull drums to the more conventional, is what keeps this show moving, and their relentless energy ensures the whole team never drags or pauses for a moment longer than is necessary for near-perfection.

The fact sheet that is part of the Miss Saigon press release is full of fascinating facts and figures, but if it really takes 16 articulated lorry-loads of scenery and equipment with a team of 100 to move and install it, a technical team of 32, a 15-piece orchestra, 200 pairs of shoes, 4 washing machines, 60 wigs, 16 smoke machines, and of course that amazing cast of almost 40 to make this show such a brilliant, spectacular legend, then it is all worth it. I now see Miss Saigon as Les Miserable’s slightly younger, but equally impressive, sister, even if I am still waiting for someone to do the same with their other great sibling. Mr Mackintosh, I look forward to your legendary revival of Martin Guerre in the next few years, but in the meantime, Miss Saigon is at Bristol until 23 June, followed by Plymouth until early August, then off up North before a few months in Zurich taking it into early 2019. Do not miss the chance to see a show that is more spectacular than its original.


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