With an extraordinary £4.4m tickets sold on the first day, Miss Saigon set a new record for sales in a single day in West End and Broadway history. Positioning it firmly as one of the most eagerly anticipated productions London has ever seen, this revival celebrates the 25th anniversary of Cameron Mackintosh’s original at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Last night the show finally opened at the Prince Edward Theatre, following sold-out previews attracting standing ovations night after night.
These ovations are absolutely deserved; the cast, crew and production team have created a show that is provocative and intriguing, somehow accomplishing the contradiction of being beautifully sophisticated whilst highlighting the filthy vulgarity of Dreamland. Miss Saigon tells a story loosely based on Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, of American GI, Chris (Alistair Brammer), who falls in love with Vietnamese orphan Kim (Eva Noblezada), whilst stationed in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh). Their relationship intensifies amidst the conflict, but with the fall of Saigon, and subsequent withdrawal of US troops, Chris is forced to leave Kim behind in the pivotal, and emotionally exhausting, helicopter scene. Despite it being a tragic love story, it is not the twists and turns of the plot that move the show along, but the motivations of the characters and the intensity that both tears the audience apart, and comforts them in one movement.
Of course, they have the helping hand of the acclaimed original score by Boublil and Schönberg. But the score carries with it vocal gymnastics that are sensational when perfected, but that scream out if they’re missed. To say I was blown away by Rachelle Ann Go and Eva Noblezada’s “Movie in my Mind,” would be like suggesting Les Miserables has been, “reasonably successful.” As the first impassioned moment, there were sobs around the auditorium as Kim and Eva laid bare their harrowing experiences, and dreams that seemed excruciatingly mundane, stark against the bright lights of Dreamland. It is the first glimpse into the psyche of these characters- the desperation and single-minded determination that put them both there, uniting the seemingly antithetical women. Rachelle Ann Go’s performance is fierce, her phenomenally potent voice and presence clearly reflect an experience and confidence that has been refined through performing in her native Philippines. It works fantastically juxtaposed against Eva Noblezada’s gorgeously innocent, youthful tone, and marks her out as a force to be reckoned with.
In Noblezada, a star has indisputably been born; to know she is new to the professional stage can only be described as mindblowing. At scarcely 18, she is such a natural actress, feeling every single sensation through Kim as she carries the audience on through her, and their, emotional voyage. There is no denying her voice is breathtakingly beautiful. She hits every single note effortlessly, with an incredible explosion of power and gentleness, embodying her character and showcasing her talent. The role of Kim, of Miss Saigon herself, is fundamental to the show, and this apparently risky casting has proven itself absolutely perfect. She looks, and expresses, the demure virgin, manipulated and exploited by the people she finds herself amongst, growing into the forceful mother who refuses to compromise for her Tam. Like Chris, we feel protective over her character; we support her and champion her, thanks to Noblezada’s passion and captivating on stage chemistry with little Tam.
The glimpses into the motivations and desires of the women is what really sets this production apart; rather than being just hysterical, emotional, 2-dimensional pretty faces, we can really empathise with them. When Eva Noblezada’s character sacrifices herself, we almost feel that we would have done the same, given the same situation. Similarly, the introduction of Ellen’s new song, “Maybe,” gives us a whole new insight; it is so easy to yearn for Chris to end up with Kim and Tam, but this song, performed heartbreakingly by Tamsin Carroll, forces the audience to confront the complexity of Chris’ relationships with the two women, and Ellen’s inner turmoil as she searches for what to do. Torn between her love for Chris, her knowledge of his relationship with Kim and wanting to do the right thing for Tam, she is transformed from being, “the other woman” into a key player whose influence over Chris is pivotal both to the plot and to the audience’s attitude towards her. The song does feel rather incongruous in the context of the score, but it makes us leave with the curious feeling that Tam will be okay Ellen as a step-mother, and that, in a way, Kim has accomplished what she intended.
Jon Jon Briones’ Engineer was a masterclass in characterisation; we’ve all met someone like the Engineer, someone repugnantly sleazy yet warm and engaging, who could probably talk the Queen into lending him her crown for a fancy dress party. I loved his cheeky portrayal of the Engineer; his delivery of some of the best lines of the show threw a much-needed life-raft of laughter into the waves of emotional intensity that were breaking over the audience. The perfect example of this is his performance of, “American Dream,” drawing the biggest cheer of the night. It epitomises the Engineer’s ability to conjure an image of something spectacular out of nothing, brought to an explosive climax through bold, brash, and incredibly over the top production and the outrageous charisma of Briones.
It would be amiss to write about Miss Saigon without any mention of a helicopter, so if you would rather keep it a surprise, stop reading now. The helicopter, a huge mechanical beast that arrives to pick Chris up as he flees Saigon is, to me, both wonderful and terrible. It certainly makes for a fantastic showpiece, and it is a great touch to visualise the nightmare scene. But I found its’ motion to be thoroughly unconvincing as it seemed to shudder and sway onto the stage, moving at the pace of a particularly lackadaisical snail. In lots of ways it felt like a bit of a gimmick, a grand, “ta da!” moment that fell just a little bit short of what modern technology can doubtlessly offer. That said, the excitement of seeing the helicopter, and the sound effects that made the whole theatre tremble, definitely add to the production. Alistair Brammer, playing Chris, interacted seamlessly with it, in what I would say was his strongest and most evocative scene.
I really fell for Alistair Brammer as Chris, the imperfect yet well-intentioned young man still finding his way in the world, much like the women. His powerful voice held its own with Noblezada’s, evoking strong images of his enchanting Marius, but more assertive, more adult and more alluring. From the way Brammer held himself on stage and interacted with the other characters, it is plain to see why Kim and Ellen would be drawn to him, as, I think, were a lot of the audience. Unsurprisingly, Chris was very involved in the passion of the show, spending perhaps a little too much time lip-locked with Kim; there were moments when it began to feel just a little uncomfortable, and when a look or a smile could have said more than a steamy embrace. Whilst his lips were not otherwise engaged, Brammer had the unenviable task of adopting the US accent that would be fitting for his GI character. Before seeing the show, I was nervous about the accents as they can be incredibly irritating if done badly, but Brammer seems to have accomplished a tone that is convincing and consistent, complimenting his sung vocals seamlessly. Also pulling off the US accent, and echoing a lot of the comments about Brammer, Hugh Maynard returns to Miss Saigon as an older, more mature John, with a rich, penetrating voice, and one of the strongest acting performances of the whole cast.
Miss Saigon is a sensational show, with a sensational cast and sensational production. Saigon is back, the heat is definitely on, and nestled in the heart of Soho is a production is more than worthy of those standing ovations, night after night after night.
For tickets and information: miss-saigon.comFollow @gingerhibiscus