Miss Saigon / The Palace Theatre / Manchester
Miss Saigon is well known for its gigantic set-pieces and Manchester’s Palace Theatre stage does not disappoint in delivering a large dose of razzle dazzle for this revival tour production. Big numbers. Great songs. Fantastic costumes. Impressive lighting and set design. Miss Saigon has a lot to offer. The themes of war, foreign invasion, the exploitation of women, and refugees are as relevant as ever, and ensure the story is more than the sum of its dazzling parts.
Set at the end of the Vietnam War, as it’s commonly referred to in the West, Miss Saigon centres on a love story between Kim, a Vietnamese girl forced to work in the Saigon bar and brothel Dreamland, and Chris, an American soldier who reluctantly visits the bar with his friends. Sooha Kim is fantastic as Kim, communicating at once vulnerability, strength, and the tragedy of her indomitable desire to protect her loved ones. Ashley Gilmour does a fine job as Chris and has a commanding stage presence, even if his romance with Kim is not always believable. Gerard Santos stands out as Thuy, a young Vietnamese man from Kim’s village, who was betrothed to her by their parents. It’s a compelling love triangle, as Miss Saigon adapts Madama Butterfly‘s classic tale of unrequited love and sets it against the backdrop of the historic Fall of Saigon in 1975.
As a title, Miss Saigon also offers a multitude of meanings that capture a full sense of what the audience has in store. The most obvious reference is to Kim herself, who may also represent the many Vietnamese women used by American soldiers to ‘comfort’ them during their ‘tour’. The title also offers connotations of what is lost: the misery of Western occupation in Vietnam, the legacy of the 2 million Vietnamese ‘boat people’ who became refugees after the war, and the name of a city that has been erased and restyled after Ho Chi Minh. Vietnam has a complicated history and, like Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s other musical masterpiece, Les Miserables, this musical admirably attempts to focus attention on the country’s dispossessed. Miss Saigon‘s attention to the plight of refugees and orphans, as well as the sexual exploitation of women in areas of conflict, remains tragically contemporary.
Although the Vietnam War ended 43 years ago, the musical’s postcolonial themes are therefore as relevant as ever. It makes a valuable attempt at asking the audience to see the war not simply from the American point of view but to understand the conflict from Vietnamese points of view—an inversion of the excessive navel-gazing often found in Hollywood films about the Vietnam War. Productions of Miss Saigon could do more, however, to stress the long history of Western subjugation over Vietnam, which had been militarily occupied by France from 1858 until 1954. While the French only left, what was then called French Indochina, in 1954 – after suffering a series of humiliating defeats to Communist nationalists, most notably in the garrison town of Dien Bien Phu – by 1965, the United States had launched a full-scale military invasion. After finally winning independence from the French, the Vietnamese were therefore forced into decades of further conflict in what is locally referred to as the American War.
Miss Saigon‘s thematic preoccupation with ‘Operation Frequent Wind’ (the code name given to the American evacuation of Saigon at the end of the war, when the last US stronghold in the country was surrounded by the Việt Cộng) not only affords the musical a fantastic set-piece to dramatise the largest helicopter evacuation in history – yes, a helicopter lands on stage, in what is still an amazing piece of modern theatre – it also informs why the tragedy of Kim’s love story is so powerful. The musical’s core setting of a Saigon brothel frequented by American soldiers as the US prepares for its expulsion from Vietnam allows Miss Saigon to connect the theme of foreign military intervention with the long history of Western colonial exploitation.
The staging does at times lean on the postcolonial exotic, however, particularly in the scenes featuring wildly gesticulating Việt Cộng soldiers dancing in close formation to intense drumbeats, which may encourage a clichéd and judgemental view of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front. The first song of the second act, ‘Bui Doi’, also feels heavy-handed in the production’s insistence on using documentary film of, one can only presume, actual Vietnamese ‘street children’. These touches may feel slightly gauche in a musical that otherwise soars very high.
The production is well supported by the show’s strong ensemble, many of whom have characters that you wish there was more time for. Na-Young Jeon brings emotional depth to the character of Gigi, an ‘expert’ prostitute who longs for a G.I. to take her away to the America she’s seen in Hollywood movies. Her turn in the ‘The Movie in My Mind’ is poignant and memorable, while also conveying the persistently sexualised nature of the Orient and the othering of East Asian women as submissive, sexual objects available for the pleasure of white men. Red Concepción as The Engineer, however, is by far the stand out of this production. He is a tour de force and makes a despicable character fascinating, compelling, and charming. The Engineer is always smooth, but Red reveals a complicated combination of desperation, grief, and delirium, as well as a never-ending confidence, buoyancy, and humour. His big number, ‘American Dream’, is the most enjoyable moment of the musical. With a giant hollowed out Statue of Liberty raised on to the stage, the Engineer sings both in pleasure and despair for a country that is both a land of opportunity and a land of greed and corruption. The song is also a great showcase for all the fantastic work done with lighting and costume design, led by Bruno Poet and Andreane Neofitou, respectively. All of the various forms of lighting and costume used on stage in Miss Saigon never fail to dazzle but are also an effective and key part of the story. It’s no wonder that the show received a standing ovation on the night I attended.
Miss Saigon is an immensely enjoyable trip to the theatre, with its un-missable set-pieces, poignant love story, and bold political themes. As the musical has not been a permanent fixture on the West End for many years, it’s great to see such a lavish revival back on tour. Miss Saigon will be in the Palace Theatre for a 2 month run so I encourage you to see it while we have the production here in Manchester.
by David Firth