Thursday, 22 May 2014

Theatre review: Miss Saigon

Most long-lived big musicals have their day and, once they've closed in the West End, may be seen in later years in smaller productions. Miss Saigon, on the other hand, closed 15 years ago but now returns with as much pomp and publicity as it ever had. It seemed a bit of a gamble to me but Cameron Mackintosh must have known something I didn't about public demand for its return, as the show recouped its costs before press night, and has already extended its booking period into next year. Based on Madame Butterfly (doesn't everything seem to be?) Miss Saigon follows Kim (Eva Noblezada,) a 17-year-old orphan acquired by a Saigon brothel catering to US soldiers in the middle of the Vietnam war. She and a young sergeant, Chris (Alistair Brammer,) fall in love and plan to marry and return to America together, but the fall of Saigon and America's hasty retreat from Vietnam sees them parted.

Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's follow-up to Les Mis makes that show seem positively emotionally restrained in comparison. Miss Saigon is big, loud and overwrought, and although Laurence Connor's production provides the requisite flash bang wallop, it does nothing to disguise the show's problems.

18-year-old Noblezada, plucked straight out of a US high school singing competition for her professional debut, has an unquestionably powerful voice, but there's no mistaking the fact that she's American as her style is to belt everything out to the rooftops - she doesn't so much take it up to 11 as take 11 as her starting point. It means there's nowhere to build to, so a show that takes such obvious pains to be a tear-jerker ends up curiously emotionless. The show's so po-faced throughout it teeters dangerously close to self-parody, never more so than in the second act opener "Bui Doi" in which John's (Hugh Maynard) pleas for a charity for Vietnamese orphans see him falling to his knees and wailing.

It's no wonder, then, that Kim's pimp The Engineer (Jon Jon Briones) looms so large over the show, providing as he does the only touch of humour and liveliness in all the gloom and hysteria. His "The American Dream" near the end provides a nice dose of cynicism that's been sorely missed in all the overpowering earnestness.

Schönberg's music features a couple of decent tunes but is a bit too uniform: I must have been in my early teens when I saw the original production and my main recollection is of not finding the songs too memorable; it's not an opinion I can revise much now. Actually I also remember whoever played Chris at the time taking his shirt off, because I'm nothing if not consistent. Brammer does the honours here, with ab definition that's clearly visible from the Grand Circle, thus providing an additional spectacle to go with the famous helicopter (which is nicely realised in Totie Driver and Matt Kinley's generally impressive design, although if like me you're sitting to the far left of the auditorium you will be able to see the G.I.s walking into it from one side and walking right out the back, like a clown car.)

I also occasionally had cause to grumble about the sound balance, which particularly mangled the actors' voices when there was a sibilant involved. (I saw the show the night after press night, and I think they'd either belted everything out a bit too much to impress the critics, or celebrated too hard afterwards, because a lot of the cast sounded croaky at times, particularly Brammer, Maynard and Tamsin Carroll as Chris' wife Ellen.)

Obviously even the formal critics' opinion (which was pretty much overwhelmingly positive, as it happens) is irrelevant to the show's appeal, and CamMac's been able to buy himself a couple more theatres to celebrate (no complaints about that, his theatres are kept in great shape) but although there's spectacle and some strong voices here, I'm not sure quite what the enduring popularity is of a show where subtlety goes to die.

Miss Saigon by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Richard Maltby Jr and Michael Mahler is booking until the 25th of April 2015 at the Prince Edward Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

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