It is regarded as one of the all-time great musicals, but after 15 years away from the West End, is Miss Saigon still worthy of adulation?
Derived from Madama Butterfly and depicting the final days of the Vietnam war and the doomed relationship between an American marine, Chris, and prostitute, Kim, this renewed, revamped Miss Saigon has a buzz (and a budget) that other shows can’t help but be envious of.
And the £4.5m spend is up on stage for all to see.
It’s most evident during Kim’s Nightmare, wherein a full-size helicopter flies onto the stage. As the desperate, terrified Vietnamese try to clamber over the US Embassy’s gates and plead with soldiers to let them in, the scene shifts and twists to show different perspectives, ramping up the horror and delivering a masterclass in smart lighting. Now augmented by projection (the West End mega-show’s tool of choice) the appearance of the chopper still draws gasps, and though it’s no longer the unique spectacle it once was, the combination of the ‘copter, lights, screaming, sound design and onstage chaos retain their terrifying power.
If only director Laurence Connor put an actual human in the cockpit rather than an obvious mannequin; a comical sight, it takes away from the drama somewhat.
This scene is one of the few in which Miss Saigon soars and begins to feel like a major West End production. The American Dream is another, where Jon Jon Brione’s Engineer smarms his way through the glitzy, showstopping song; all flashing lights, dancing girls and grand pieces of scenery.
There aren’t enough good things to say about Briones. He is Miss Saigon’s main attraction. Funny, menacing and charismatic, his many years of playing the Engineer across the globe have clearly not diminished his love for the role.
As Chris, Alistair Brammer’s vocals are passable, but his diction is not clear enough and he lacks the charm necessary to make us really care about his character. His one stand-out moment is a hotel room meltdown, where his anger and frustration boil over. If he can channel more of that energy, he will reap the rewards.
The best voice of the night, however, comes from Rachelle Ann Go’s Gigi who sings The Movie In My Mind with astonishing power and feeling.
For the most part, Miss Saigon still pushes the right emotional buttons, but even though it has a fairly black-and-white approach to the world it inhabits, there are missteps. Most glaring of all is Bui Doi, a song about the abandoned children resulting from American-Vietnamese affairs. It’s an overbearing song as it is, but when accompanied by a cheap video montage of said children, the whole thing becomes mawkish, manipulative and reminiscent of a TV appeal.
The same cannot be said of the story’s ending, which remains as emotionally devastating as ever. Miss Saigon can confidently hang onto its status as a top-flight tearjerker, as it grabs and twists the heartstrings until there is no choice but to give in.
If the rest of the show employed this surgical precision it would benefit massively. The first act is too flabby and a couple of songs could happily be excised. The casting is not quite right yet, and too much dialogue is lost to mumbling and quiet mics. This is most glaring during ensemble pieces and when supporting characters deliver lines. Criminally, even some of the Engineer’s one liners are drowned out during The American Dream.
Ultimately, this new, grittier Miss Saigon is a vastly entertaining, enjoyable show, but it never quite reaches the next level and is always searching for that transcendent moment where it reaches up into the rafters and goes from ‘good’ to ‘great’.