Musical theatre / “Miss Saigon”, Opera Australia. At Sydney Opera House until October 13. Reviewed by HELEN MUSA.
THIS flashy new Cameron Mackintosh production of the second most famous musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, creators of “Les Miserables”, is a gambit by Opera Australia to draw in the crowds.
Its connection to opera is tenuous, but it is loosely based on an operatic favourite, “Madama Butterfly” and has clear echoes of Puccini in the central tragic lovers, Vietnamese bar girl Kim (Cio Cio San) and American GI Chris (Pinkerton), the cockroach-like Engineer (Goro, the marriage broker) and the conciliatory John (Consul Sharpless). There the resemblance ends, for Puccini’s opera was set in a time of peace but this is set in a time of a vicious civil war.
But its book does not have the advantage of a great writer such as Victor Hugo behind it, and so there are stops, starts and an inexplicable flashback to the fall of Saigon that hamper what might have been a sweeping historical narrative of the Vietnam War.
“Miss Saigon” is structurally flawed, with too much attention given to the self-justifying white American wife, Ellen, taking away from what should be a starkly tragic ending.
The public commentary objecting that both “Miss Saigon” and “Madame Butterfly” show Asian women in a poor light seems puzzling, since it is incontestable that women were exploited during the conflict, but the violence-porn and the sheer ambient noise of this production makes it hard to get a grip on the central story (surtitles would have helped). I found this lack of sympathy mystifying and alienating.
The musical does have terrific songs, beginning with “The Movie in My Mind” performed forcefully by Kimberley Hodgson, Abigail Adriano and the bar girls.
In their affecting roles as Kim and as Chris, Abigail Adriano and Nigel Huckle sang sweetly and powerfully; surely they are the most important characters. But their exquisite “Sun and Moon” and “The Last Night of the World” were all but drowned out in the cacophony of the Saigon and Bangkok Street scenes, which the director Laurence Connor and his team have sought to evoke in a busy, busy set and lighting effects.
As Kim’s antagonist, Vietcong Commissar Thuy, Laurence Mossman also sang with believable clarity, but at other times the songs were over-egged so that Nick Afoa as John, in the sombre number “Bui Doi” (about the child mixed-race child resulting from the war) lost the poignancy of the lyrics.
Spectacle is the order of the day, and just as “The Phantom of the Opera” must have a chandelier, so “Miss Saigon” has a helicopter, this one enhanced by virtual technology to give you impression that it’s flying over the auditorium.
There is, too, tight choreography of the bar girls – straight out of “Moulin Rouge” – and later in an arresting scene, where, dominated by huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh, the Vietcong soldiers do a synchronised dance that exudes power.
Above all, there is the role of the engineer, the laconic seeming-controller of everything.
The character is “Les Misérables’s” Thenardier on steroids and the performance by Seann Miley Moore could have stepped straight out of a cabaret drag show, with lots of mouthing, facial mugging and insinuating body gesture.
There was a low point in the showstopper “American Dream”, delivered with such heavy emphasis that the laid-back cynicism of the number was entirely lost.
A crowd-pleaser for the influencers in the audience, the director gave the final curtain call and the top-billing to this performer, bypassing the suicide of the titular Miss Saigon herself.
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