Miss Saigon – spectacular wartime drama + passionate love story = a majestic, modern Pop-opera @ Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
“The chopper has landed. “Miss Saigon” has finally arrived in New York. That’s one giant step for Cameron Mackintosh. Big, ferocious, raw, in-your-face from start to finish, and it’s here to stay.” Variety, April 1991.
Such was the verdict in April 1991 at the Broadway Theater for Miss Saigon which wowed the press and public, grossing $286 million over a ten year run. From the premiere in 1989, it was also a smash hit at Drury Lane, London with awards on both sides of the pond. A revised, rebooted revival of the show has opened in NY and heads off this month on a USA-wide tour, while a major new UK production is currently on the road.
And now, the chopper has landed at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, staying here until 17 February.
To follow up Schönberg and Boublil’s great success with “Les Miserables,” the inspiration for “Miss Saigon” came from a photograph in a news magazine; it featured a Vietnamese mother leaving her young son in the departure lounge at Tan Son Nhut Air Base to board a plane to the USA with his father, an American GI – the ultimate sacrifice to provide a better life for their child.
Tying in neatly, the plot is also loosely based on Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly, about Cio Cio San, a young Japanese girl who falls in love with American naval officer Pinkerton, with devastating consequences.
Butterfly’s tragic tale is transported through time and tide to Saigon in 1975, two years after the peace agreement was signed to end the devastating Vietnam (aka American) war. The last of the US soldiers still in residence are demob happy at a local Bar, the raucous downtown dive, Dreamland. Just as in World War II, the GIs were “overpaid, over-sexed and over here”.
“The heat is on in Saigon
But ’til they tell us we’re gone
I’m gonna buy you a girl” ….
.. goes the song, as Sergeant John offers a midnight treat to his best mate but Chris just wants a cold beer. In charge of “entertainment” at the bar, is the loud, lecherous, lascivious Engineer. His posse of pretty girls are treated like pawns to be sold and swapped as they parade about scantily dressed, flaunting their wares.
A newcomer is 17 year old Kim, an orphan and outsider, who is visibly appalled by the behaviour of the outrageous Gigi who wants to be crowned Miss Saigon as top showgirl. But she’s merely playing along, while she dreams of dollars, New York, and the new world. Na-Young Jeon captures this gritty character with a powerful voice as she belts out “Movie in my Mind,” accompanied by the girls as a spotlit backing group.
Chris observes the vulnerable, virginal Kim and decides to protect her from the other Marines, who pick up girls, quite literally, throwing them over their shoulder, at the Engineer’s nightclub with extras. He escapes with Kim to an upstairs bedroom with open air terrace where their one night stand turns into a sweet brief encounter. She explains it’s her first time. He realises she is The One, as he sings the plaintive ballad “Why God Why?”:
“ I’ve been with girls who knew much more
I never felt confused before
Why me? What’s your plan?
I can’t help her – no one can
I liked my memories as they were
But now I’ll leave remembering her.”
Ashley Gilmour is perfect in the role as a tough Army Sergeant softened by gentle, boyish charm. Expressing their love for each other, he promises to return and take her back home.
But during the frantic, final days of the war, with the US Embassy being evacuated, time runs out. As we follow Kim on her emotional journey, Sooha Kim is a remarkable young actress and singer, who transforms from timid, terrified teenager to mature young woman, coping with the responsibilities of motherhood.
Through fast paced, neatly choreographed scenes, the narrative is told, operatic style through the lyrics. Schönberg and Boublil’s soulful score is clearly reminiscent of “Les Miserables”, a blend of spine-tingling music and richly-layered, romantic songs.
The drama is brilliantly achieved through well rounded lead characters, exceptionally fine singing, slick set changes, (creating a real sense of place and time), superb lighting, (tropical crimson sunrise and sunsets), and sound effects. With the arrival of the helicopter, sitting in the dress circle, a low rumbling sound was heard behind us, rising in volume as it moves overhead and speeds over the stage with an almost deafening roar. So realistic, you feel you were taking part in an action movie!
A moving scene is in Atlanta 1978, when a collection of vintage photographs show the penniless Amerasian children on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City as “Bui Doi” is performed by John and the ensemble at the Atlanta Convention, September, 1978
This gets to the essence of the story – the bui doi, “dust of life” kids with American fathers and Vietnamese mothers, either the result of rape, born through prostitution, or like Kim, through loving relationships. With the fall of Saigon, many women hurried with their children to be being airlifted out of Vietnam. Some children made it. Many did not.
By focusing on the personal, private plight of Kim and Chris, we can observe all around, the bigger political picture. Miss Saigon offers a most important history lesson for those who missed out on the now forgotten facts and figures, the dreadful human tragedy of the Vietnam war, when ordinary, innocent people were caught up in the horrific conflict. And history repeats itself, putting into clear perspective current news reports of the boat people drowning at sea en route to Greek shores and the Syrian refugees.
Other stand out performances include Zoe Doano as Ellen, elegantly poised yet appearing fragile and alone, understanding too well that her husband’s heart has been left behind in Vietnam. Taking centre stage in a couple of show stopping numbers is the cool, charismatic Red Concepcion as The Engineer – the sleazy Hustler, like the camped up MC host at the Kit Kat Club in Cabaret, as he cavorts with his Dreamland dancers.
Far removed from typical light, frothy, sing along musicals, and similar to “Les Miserables” and “Evita”, this a serious theatrical drama, performed with electrifying energy, ensemble dancing, marching and glorious music.
Apart from hard hitting wartime action and hovering helicopters, this is a passionate love story, a modern Pop-opera, which resonates its tragic true-to-life tale as strongly today as it did nearly 30 years ago.
17 January to 17 February. 2018
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh – www.edtheatres.com 0131 529 6000
UK Tour dates: