“ Her Majesty's Theatre. Miss Saigon is one of the most successful musicals in the world - seen by over 33 million people in 25 countries. Set in 1975, during the final days leading up to the American evacuation of Saigon, MISS SAIGON is an epic love story about the relationship between an American GI and a young Vietnamese woman. Cameron Mackintosh, who produced Cats, Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera, has created an entirely new version of MISS SAIGON, which has been acclaimed throughout the US, England and, most recently, Korea. „
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There are so many positive reviews and documented reports about the musical from West End to Broadway and Down Under acclaiming that Miss Saigon is one of the best productions ever shown around the world!
After reading other reviews in dooyoo (with crowns) and other on-line sites, I was inspired to write my own review considering that I was able to watch the play for 3 times: April 1997 (New York, USA), October 2000 (Manila, Philippines) and October 2005 (Belfast, Northern Ireland). With no doubt, each review has its own merit of telling us why Miss Saigon is highly recommended play to watch.
Having that, so what is the reason why that I have to give another review about the play? Firstly, I watched it in different locations and each location has different ways of doing it which is influence by the size of the venue where the play will be shown; and thus, each location gives different experience! Eventually, it affects the props, lighting, stage design, scenes/blocking, sounds, back drafts, etc. Secondly, my personal assessment after watching my countrymen who took part in the production, wherein majority of these Filipino cast are singers, artists and dancers in the Philippines which somehow a glimpse of what we can offer. And thirdly, since the last UK tour 2005/06 ended last month (June 24, 2006 in Bristol), it is timely to give a final review of the play and hopefully encourages other people to buy the beautiful CD soundtrack or DVD recordings, and finds out why it is the talk of the town for more than 15 years!
The first time I watched Miss Saigon was in 1997 in New York, during my short business trip in the US. Luckily, my friend was able to buy two front row tickets. It was really a wonderful experience to watch it in Broadway and got the chance to witness the musical that made Lea Salonga an international star (she gave birth this year to a baby girl). Lea was not playing Kim when I watched it in the US, so when the Cameron Mackintosh production decided to bring it to Manila, I did not hesitate to buy two balcony tickets for me and for my Aunt in the second week of the run just to find why Lea got two international awards! Having the opportunity to travel, I decided to watch again the play in Northern Ireland late last year as part of UK Tour 2005/06. Watching the musical for the 3rd time is making an affirmation that I am really proud to be a Filipino. Watching our local talents (in lead roles) at the Grand Opera House of Belfast (Northern Ireland) was awesome. I was only the Filipino who watched it on that night! Truly indeed Pinoys (Filipinos) are talented people with international caliber in the music scene.
Overall, I liked the production held in the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) compare it in New York and in Belfast, except that a real/life-size helicopter was used in Broadway! I did enjoy watching the play in Broadway together with the rest of the audience (majority were Japanese). The show did not fail my high expectation, except that I had an aching neck after the show caused by sitting at the front row (second row from the stage). Moreover, several scenes (Act One: Saigon) in the Manila production, especially with Kim and Chris were more romantic and dramatic due to props, lighting and back draft, including the marching choreography of the army soldiers (Act One: Ho Chi Minh City). The music from orchestra in the Grand Opera House (Belfast) was clear and loud which gave you the feeling of not only watching it but being part of the musical.
The main reason why Miss Saigon got an outstanding rating is not only the superb performance (acting and singing/voice) of the cast, but the selection of the beautiful love songs that bring the characters to life! The portrayal of the characters such as the roles for Kim, Engineer, Chris, Gigi and Ellen brought the audience into laughter and tears. You also experience the pain, passion and intimacy between Chris and Kim while they are performing musical numbers like The movie in my mind, Why God why, The last night of the world Id give my life for you; and of course the expression of love during the duet of Kim and Chris in Sun and moon, and Ellen and Kim in I still believe.
Listed below are the relevant facts and figures about the original cast of Miss Saigon (www.miss-saigon.com) opened in London in 1989.
The original cast of Miss Saigon has played 19,000 performances worldwide and sold 150,000 soundtrack copies within 3 days of its release
The musical has been translated into 10 different languages in 19 countries and 138 cities
Miss Saigon garnered 29 major theatre awards
With my personal reflection, the musical reminded me of the influence of the United States of America during the operation of the two military bases in the Philippines (Subic and Clark) until 1991 (after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo). And because of this influence, Pinoys (Filipinos) are desperately eager to visit the US and experience the American Dream. Having the difficulties of securing the visa, our kababayan (countrymen) are pushing themselves to the fullest just to leave the country. Despite the several attempts and denials, still these aspirants are well determined whatever they can do (even to the extent of spending their savings to illegal travel agents) just to get a visa approval (either for work or travel) in the UK and Europe or Canada. I dont blame them for leaving the country to find greener pastures towards better future of their families (and future children). However, it is important to protect ones citizenship. So, whatever opportunities that will come along the way, always think several times before doing things which might jeopardize our citizenship or affect the reputation of the country of origin as a whole. In spite of our recognition as talented people, we have also the reputation of being illegitimate residents around the world!
Nevertheless, legitimate Filipinos working hard around the world are now the living heroes (bayani) of the country. Why? Because they are the one making the Filipino currency (peso) stronger and build up the Philippine economy through remittances (dollars, dinars, euros, yens, and pounds). Mabuhay!
The Bristol Hippodrome is currently home to Cameron Mackintoshs new production of the hit musical Miss. Saigon. Being a big fan of this genre, my daughter and I really wanted to see it, so I bought the tickets through Ticketmaster - £35 for mine, £30 for hers and we saw it last night, fourth row of the stalls.
Miss. Saigon is quite a heavy musical, not one I would recommend for young kids (swearing, murder, suicide, skimpy costumes) or for casual fans. It is a through-composed musical, which means there is no spoken dialogue, everything is conveyed through song. I know some people dont like this. I dont think my husband would have enjoyed it much.
But my daughter and I loved it. We have the CD and already knew the songs and the gist of the story, although I found the plot much clearer watching it come to life on stage.
The musical is set in the 1970s Vietnam war, beginning in Saigon April 1975, just before the American forces leave the country. We return to the same city now renamed Ho Chi Minh City three years later to pick up on the story and the first act ends there. The second act begins with a brief number set in the USA in 1978, then most of the action takes place in Bangkok in October 1978 apart from one flashback section to 1975.
The story (based on Madame Butterfly) is basically a tragic romance. An American G.I. called Chris meets Kim, a Vietnamese prostitute and they fall in love. But the war forces them apart, only to meet again three years later, when their lives have both changed. I dont want to go into any more detail on this, in case it gives too much away. It might lessen the impact, if you already know what happens.
None of the cast were known to me before going to see this production, but you dont really need a star name the musical itself is the star. Each cast member was outstanding and it is really quite amazing to see how talented these performers are, yet they do not get the recognition of a Michael Ball or a Ruthie Henshall.
The part of the Engineer (Kims pimp) is a dream role for any actor and Jon Jon Briones was excellent. He combined perfectly the manipulative, money-making, selfish side of the character with the guile and charm needed to make it believable. He was great to watch, a born entertainer and received the loudest cheers at the end.
The two romantic leads were Ima Castro as Kim and Ramin Karimloo as Chris. Ima was a very sweet Kim, her innocence and love coming across very well, while Ramin was a passionate and strong Chris. They made a very good couple; it was easy to believe they had feelings for each other as the chemistry between them seemed very natural. They both had outstanding voices too, with great texture and range and their vocal skills perfectly complemented each other.
John Partridge was an engaging John Chriss G.I. friend radiating the confidence and authority his role demanded and a fair dollop of charisma too.
The only two characters who failed to make much of an impact on me were Thuy (Kims fiancé from an arranged marriage) and Ellen (Johns wife). Both actors did what they could with the role Christian Rey Marbella was a proud and stoic Thuy, Lara Pulver was a strong and loyal Ellen but I felt the characters werent as developed as they could be.
The minor parts and ensemble were of a very high standard. The dancing and singing were excellent throughout and the big production number The Morning of the Dragon was enhanced by some impressive tumbling and martial arts skills.
STAGING AND SET
Miss. Saigon is probably best known for its inclusion of a helicopter coming down onto the stage and taking off again. Rather disappointingly, this production didnt use a real helicopter but instead opted to achieve the effect by using film of a helicopter accompanied by visual and sound effects.
In every other aspect though, the staging and set were excellent. The gaudy and vulgar sets of the seedy bars were an impressive contrast to the dark grey sets of the drab streets. Light and dark, colours and grey were all used effectively. The large red flags of the military parade and the paper dragons provided good pointers to the tone of the scene.
The set I was most impressed with was during the flashback sequence in the second act. The changing position of the high gates to the American Embassy in Saigon were moved around the stage, enabling the audience to feel as though they were inside then outside, emphasizing with the viewpoints of both the American military and the Vietnamese people screaming for help.
If I had to describe Miss. Saigon in one word, it would be INTENSE. It is mainly a serious musical, always involving and an emotional journey for audience and performers alike. You quickly come to care for the characters and feel wrapped up in their lives and concerned about their fates. Expect to cry.
But it is well balanced with light-hearted interludes, especially from the Engineer. This is particularly noticeable in the second act, when you get the wonderful number The American Dream before the tragic finale. Without these kinds of humour breaks, I feel it would be rather a harrowing experience. I was also surprised how much I felt it taught me about Vietnam, it is a very political musical and does make you think.
The American Dream was a highlight for me. Once again, Jon Jon Briones gets to take the stage and work it. Hes a little guy with a huge personality and seemed to relish the chance to shine. Accompanied by the live dancers and animation by the legendary Gerald Scarfe, this is a number you will not forget for a long time after seeing it.
The songs from Miss. Saigon seem to be less well-known than those of Les Miserables, for example (another one of Boublil and Schonbergs successes), which is a shame, as they are very good. Some of them dont have the impact on CD that they do on stage especially The Morning of the Dragon and Bui-Doi but this is rather due to the strength of the staging, rather than any weakness of the songs.
The Movie In My Mind and Sun and Moon are both beautiful songs in their own right, ones that are able to entice an emotional response from the CD alone. When these are realised on stage, the impact is even stronger.
I would definitely recommend this musical, especially if you have already listened to the CD or are a fan of Les Miserables. It was an amazing experience and one which is well worth the ticket money. My fifteen-year-old daughter wants a career in musical theatre herself and has already been in four musicals herself. She told me this morning that she rates Miss. Saigon as the best musical she has seen.
Just to crown a lovely evening, we got to meet some of the cast afterwards. Everyone was very friendly (especially Christine Sambeli-Marquez, Ravy Soc Alfonso and Edward Briones), but the highlight of our evening was meeting Ramin Karimloo (Chris). He was gorgeous, charming and happy to chat to us a real gentleman.
Ive always loved musicals, even the older (now dated) ones, such as Carousel, but from my very first trip to London to see my first modern one I was hooked for life. Miss Saigon was the third one I went to see and luckily it was one of the first few performances with the original cast. That was back in 1989 with my (then) partner. I went again in 1994, this time with my best friend Ann and it was almost as good as the first time.
Brought to the theatre by Cameron Mackintosh, it was an instant hit and continued to run at The Drury Lane theatre in London for an astonishing ten years, with cast changes who gave wonderful performances. I think my fond memories of the first performance were biased as there is nothing quite like seeing the original cast and knowing you are experiencing history in the making.
The Background to the Show.
Miss Saigon was heavily influenced by the opera Madam Butterfly, but few people know of the other influence, the French book called Madame Chrysantheme which was translated into English by Alan Boublil who wrote some of the lyrics for the musical along with Richard Maltby Junior. Claude- Michel Schonberg made another influence, which put Puccinis opera in a completely different setting when he saw a photograph of a young Vietnamese mother handing her part-American son over to his father at the airport. From then on the rest is history. Produced by Cameron Mackintosh, with Claude-Michel Schonberg (also providing the music), casting began as soon as the musical was in its final stages of preparation.
The biggest problem was the casting of the lead character Kim and her supporting female characters. Kim needed an exceptional voice but although Lea Salonga (a Philippine girl) had the voice, she was not prepared to appear on stage in skimpy clothes. Eventually a way was found around the problem and the script was hastily changed to accommodate this. This actually worked much better than the original script and lead to one of the musicals most poignant moments.
Set in the final days of the American presence in Vietnam, the focus of the story is on an instant romance with Kim and Chris, an American soldier. Forced by the loss of all her family, Kim has been sold into a brothel run by the Engineer, a shady Frenchman who has already profited by the years of upheaval in Vietnam. The show opens with a raunchy song by the girls who have spent much of the war prostituting themselves for a few measly dollars and in the hope of maybe meeting an American soldier who will take them away from their war-torn country.
Kim is brought on-stage in a white gown, which covers her body, a temptation by the Engineer to soldiers who want a virgin. The idealistic Chris falls heavily for her and pays to keep her with him for the remaining time he has before the fall of Saigon. He even goes through a ceremony that binds him to Kim and this produces some of the best songs in the entire musical.
The story picks up three years later with Kim still with the Engineer and hiding Chriss son, Tam in the hope that one-day Chris will return for her. At this stage the audience doesnt know why Kim has been abandoned but the Engineer sees Tam and Kim as his passport to the USA.
In the meantime, John, Chriss friend from his time in Vietnam, is campaigning for the American soldiers to recognise the children they left behind. Many of who are living in camps for half-breeds. Learning that he has a son, Chris flies to Bangkok where Kim is now living, accompanied by his American wife Ellen.
A showdown is inevitable but before this happens the audience finally finds out what happened to both Kim and Chris in the fall of Saigon. Ill leave the ending open for those who havent yet seen the musical but there is a heavy price to pay for everyone involved.
There are some wonderful songs in the musical, from the haunting duets between Chris and Kim to the wonderfully outrageous songs from the Engineer. Look out for the hilarious The American Dream and the opening song, The heat is on in Saigon.
Im a real sucker for the romantic and Sun and Moon, The Last Night of the World, (with its amazing saxophone solo), really had me stunned.
Of course there are more songs, which deserve a mention, I couldnt fault one but everyone has their favourite.
The one that really moved me and spoke volumes about the American presence in Vietnam was the moving Bui-Doi, sung by the character of John.
Bui-Doi is the Vietnamese word for the dust of life and the lyrics say it all.
Theyre called Bui-Doi, the dust of life, conceived in hell and born in strife,
They are the living reminder of the all the things we failed to do,
Thats why we must, we must not forget, they are all our children too.
I think this moved me so much because of the real-life footage showing in the background of the children in these camps abandoned by everyone and hated by the new regime who abhorred the intervention of the American troops.
Theres another song towards the end where Chris tries to explain to his wife, Ellen, about the unrealistic situation in Vietnam at the time. It never fails to remind me of the futility of war and what the soldiers actually felt about it. The words We were Americans, how could we fail to do good? In a world where nothing seemed to be right, everything was misunderstood.
This is no mere song to be included to show the American soldiers in a good light, half of the time they never knew exactly why they were there. Im sure that the script was written to put this message over and it worked so well on many different levels. Simply because it is a musical doesnt mean to say that its a light-hearted story just about star-crossed lovers.
Of course the most amazing thing about the Drury Lane performance was the use of a real helicopter in the fall of Saigon. I dare anyone not to be impressed by this magnificent feat of theatre. I felt I was really there and experiencing all the traumas of both the American personnel and the wives and lovers left behind.
There was an equally amazing scene with the Engineer riding on stage in a white Cadillac towards the end of the show. This was theatre at its best! It provided the audiences with some light relief but it also highlighted the dreams of all the people caught up in The American Dream, where life was seen through rose-tinted glasses and in the end melted away like the lotus blossoms worn in the hair of the innocent girls left behind.
It was doubly powerful with the complete contrast to the ending and for ages after I couldnt help but wonder at the timing and just how well it worked.
I remember struggling to my feet after the final curtain came down (to rapt applause) and not realising that tears were running down my face as I waited for my partner to buy the sweatshirts and the vinyl recording of the show.
I went out into the cool evening air and stumbled along, not wanting to go back to the real world just yet. We had a drink in the nearest bar before going to our hotel and I found myself humming along to some of the tunes as I slowly came back down to earth. It was an experience I will never forget and Im so glad I was privileged to see the performance.
I told my friend all about it when I arrived home, but it wasnt to be for many years before we went together to see it. During that time we wore my record out, (although I still have it). I bought the double CD many years later after I watched it again. Although I knew what was about to happen I still felt much of the early wonder and my friends face was a picture when she stumbled out much as I had done all those years ago.
It finally closed its London run in October 1999 and has since gone on to tour in the UK, America and abroad. In smaller theatres a film backdrop has replaced the helicopter sequence but I dont think this would deter people from experiencing the same emotions as mine.
Its almost superfluous to sum this up and yet I still feel that some people would class this as opera and miss out on one of the best musicals ever to captivate and keep capturing audiences across the world. Its not just a womens thing either. My partner enjoyed it so such he recommended it to many of his friends and they agreed it appealed to both sexes. I dont think it was just the skimpy costumes either. This is a musical that appeals to men and women, young and old, although it certainly isnt suitable for younger children.
It is one of those special events, which just have to be seen, and its not stuffy or something to appeal to only theatre buffs.
If I havent convinced you by now look up the rave reviews on the Internet and ask yourself, Why is a musical going into its 17th year and still going strong?
Its based on a slice of history that still resonates with ever film made about the Vietnam War. Sure, it has singing and dancing, but the message is as relevant today as when I first saw it.
Ladies you will weep, gentlemen you may ogle the women and laugh yourself silly at some of the lyrics (which are still very near to the bone), but I bet you come away totally enchanted and that is what good theatre is all about.
The Necessary Bits.
When writing my review the only thing I had to look up was the current performances and where its showing in the UK. Its just closing in Manchester but bookings are now being taken for the Birmingham Hippodrome. Prices vary and its worth shopping around for a good deal.
The majority of my review is based on memory alone, can anyone fail to see the significance in that? If it eventually makes it back to near my hometown then I wouldnt hesitate to see it again, thats how much I enjoyed it.
Engineer Jonathon Pryce.
Kim ..Lea Salonga.
Chris .Simon Bowman.
John Peter Polycarpou
Ellen Claire Moore.
Tam ..various children.
All gave sterling performances but Jonathon Pryce is still the Engineer in my book and always will be. Just think of the character who played Fagin in Oliver and youll know what I mean.
As always, thanks for reading.
© Lisa Fuller. January 2006.