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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Prince Edward


  Ph: Michael Le Poer Trench

Does Miss Saigon still achieve lift-off? That’s one way of putting the question surrounding the new West End revival of the last of the British musical behemoths to mark out London as a global theater capital throughout the 1980s (and beyond). The original Nicholas Hytner production may have won awards aplenty for co-stars Lea Salonga and Jonathan Pryce – and prompted a casting row in the case of the Welsh leading man that led in 2007 to its own David Henry Hwang play on the topic, Yellow Face – but many to this day associate the piece primarily with the helicopter that takes wing in the second act. So how is that chopper looking 25 years on? Not to mention the show as a whole?
The answers on both fronts defy ready sound bites. As directed by Laurence Connor, whose reappraisal of Les Miserables was a recent Tony contender on Broadway, this rewriting of the Madame Butterfly story seems both more and less compelling than it did before, one’s responses a consequence of certain casting decisions this time around that do a lot to up the emotional ante even if Hytner and his original cohorts’ stagecraft is in no way equaled by the cramped, often over-busy staging that seems to have been shoehorned on to the stage of the Prince Edward Theatre – in itself a far more confined playing space than Drury Lane, where the original version ran a decade.
On the other hand, the slightly squeezed nature of proceedings here tends to throw into relief the best of a sometimes shouty but generally compelling set of principals, not least two leads who separately and together make a strong case for a return visit, even for those (like myself) who remain dry-eyed by proceedings right the way through to the melodramatic finale. (That finale, by the way, found a weird echo in the recent Trevor Nunn-directed production of Fatal Attraction: an unwitting case of the West End cannibalising itself.) The story is one of love quickly won and then just as suddenly lost in and around the physical and emotional maelstrom of the fall of Saigon. The young Vietnamese bar-girl Kim (Eva Noblezada, in her professional stage debut) gets swept up by American soldier Chris (Alistair Brammer), by whom she has a child, only for Chris to then return home and begin a new life with wife Ellen (Tamsin Carroll, the Australian performer who looks old enough to be Brammer’s mother but compensates with a sure and fiery singing voice). Cue a final reckoning from which no individual – or society – emerges with honor. 
Noblezada’s casting from its announcement has been the news story surrounding the production, the American teenager wowing the production’s powers-that-be (from producer Cameron Mackintosh onwards) and leading her to the coveted part in marked contrast to Salonga a quarter-century ago, who may have been the same age then as Noblezada is now but came to the project with far greater professional sheen and polish – two qualities that aren’t really appropriate to the show’s portrait of a grief-stricken child-woman learning how to fight her corner at the eventual price of her own life. In fact, one could argue perhaps counterintuitively that something about this 18-year-old’s open-faced sense of discovery as a performer feeds Kim’s comparable sense of discovery as a war bride and mother. Whereas Salonga was as emotionally distant as she was vocally commanding, the occasional rough edges to Noblezada’s full-throated delivery of the material helps humanize what can otherwise come across as pretty hoary stuff. The performance, in my view, is an absolute knockout.
So is the Engineer of the wiry Jon Jon Briones, a 20-something ensemble player in the West End original who ended up near the end of the run sharing the male lead and then resuming that part on tour all over the map. As diminutive as Pryce is tall, the Filipino-born Briones has a gut-busting power that defies his physique, and his sinuously sleazy authority as the piece’s defining pimp-cum-puppeteer makes clear the debt owed the conception of this role to the Emcee in Cabaret, a part Briones incidentally seems born to play. Add in strong support in smaller roles from Rachelle Ann Go and Kwang-Ho Hong, and one finds perhaps the strongest contingent of oriental Asian performers that I have yet to come across in a mainstream musical production.
Whether Miss Saigon itself deserves all this acumen applied to it will forever be argued this way and that, since for every person who is overwhelmed by its depiction of a love divided exists at least one other who resists the calculatedly anthemic nature of the Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schonberg/Richard Maltby Jr score and a narrative that reaches emotive rock bottom with second-act opener “Bui Doi” – a morally dubious, image-dependent number that a wildly over-the-top Hugh Maynard manages to mangle in the process.
Still, Miss Saigon has given a lot of pleasure to a lot of people in its day and will surely continue to do so, and even more than was true of Les Miserables, one can actually imagine this as a more-than-viable film. Oh, and as for that helicopter, yes, the flying machine is still there, first as a projection and then for real, though the emphasis this time around has changed. Whereas the event the first time was all about technical derring-do in a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-esque way, the same sequence has become less about hardware and more about humanity, the focus here on the faces of the Vietnamese left behind as the chopper carries the lucky away. The passage of time has brought with it greater truth, and for that alone, one is happy to herald this show anew.


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