‘Miss Saigon’ was imperial.
It is always a thrill when a classic production makes its way to Australian shores. From ‘Phantom’ to ‘Les Mis’, there are a number of musical behemoths which are guaranteed to entice audiences through name recognition alone. It is all the more satisfying then when such a production not only lives up to its reputation, but is stellar in its own right. This is the case of ‘Miss Saigon’.
After a sixteen year interval, ‘Miss Saigon’ has returned to Australian shores to again grace the stage of Melbourne’s famed Her Majesty’s Theatre. The long-awaited return of the beloved show is made particularly special considering it is preparing to celebrate its 35th anniversary in 2024. Even after three decades, ‘Miss Saigon’ is still considered a timeless, influential classic within the musical theatre community.
‘Miss Saigon’ was created by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr. ‘Miss Saigon’ would mark Schönberg and Boublil’s second large scale collaboration after writing the music and lyrics for ‘Les Miserables’. Maltby Jr’s inclusion in the production provided the show’s epic orchestral arrangement a slightly bouncier tone due to his previous work on musicals such as ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ and ‘Baby’.
Premiering on 20 September 1989 at London’s Theatre Royal, the musical would make the move to New York’s Broadway Theatre in April 1991. Both productions were multi-nominated at their respective Lawrence Olivier and Tony ceremonies, with Jonathan Pryce and Lea Salonga each winning awards for their leading performances. International productions followed, with performances in the likes of Japan, Canada, Europe, and Australia. Although the musical received severe criticism in the past due to accusations of whitewashing, racism, and misogyny, contemporary productions have endeavoured to represent the material respectfully and genuinely. This has resulted in the musical’s revival numerous times. Following its revival in 2017, ‘Miss Saigon’ would become the thirteenth longest running Broadway musical in history.
Adapted from Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera ‘Madame Butterfly’, ‘Miss Saigon’ tells tragic love story of an American Marine and an orphaned Vietnamese bargirl. In adapting Puccini’s opera, Schönberg and Boublil relocated the setting from early 20th century Japan to Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) during the final days of the Vietnam War. The sung-through musical is presented from the viewpoint of Kim, who upon being unintentionally abandoned by her ‘husband’ Chris when he and the rest of the American troops are evacuated, dutifully awaits his return. A classic tale of doomed romance and twisted fate, ‘Miss Saigon’ is a deeply beloved musical which is as timeless as it is of its time.
Returning to Melbourne for the first time since 2007, ‘Miss Saigon’ returns to the prestige stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre. Coming out of its 2022 host duties of ‘Hamilton’, Her Majesty’s Theatre provides the perfect atmosphere for such epic productions. It opulent crimson and gold foyer leading to the theatre perfectly complements the dramatic colours of ‘Miss Saigon’s’ production. Rich red hues cascade throughout the theatre, from the seats to the velvet doorway curtains. Audiences take their seats facing the stage where two grand wooden scaffolds cascade along either side. A lull rolls through the audience before the dramatic overture erupts throughout the theatre.
A production as big and bold as ‘Miss Saigon’ needs to embrace its epic nature in all facets. For its current Melbourne production, this has not only happened, but has gone beyond it as well. Perhaps its biggest success comes through its set design.
Wanting to transport the audience to 1970s Vietnam (and later Thailand), Set and Production Designers David Harris, Matt Kinley and Totie Driver draw upon eastern architectural influences in their construction. The aforementioned scaffolds feel authentic to a traditional Vietnamese city, as do the fabric awnings spread throughout Dreamland. The biggest accomplishments however (in more ways than one) come from two of the show’s most renowned set pieces – the helicopter and statue of Ho Chi Minh. Both are immense in scale. Soft sighs of astonishment flood throughout the theatre at the sight of them, a sure sign that Harris, Kinley and Driver have accomplished their mission.
Authenticity is a major focus of the costume department also. Lead by Andreane Neofitou, the costuming of ‘Miss Saigon’ is nothing short of exquisite. Adequately channelling 1970s fashion, Neofitou, with the support of associate Lee Tassie and wig and makeup designer Stefan Musch, harnesses the feeling of wartime Vietnam through their dirt-covered brigades. Unsurprisingly, their mastery is on brightest display when their simple designs are contrasted with the opulent costumes worn during the bar and burlesque sequences. Neofitou’s team marry the contrasting fashions with a confident flare.
Completing the show’s triad of excellent creative production is its lighting and sound design. In the case of the former, simple stage lighting is utilised frequently to compliment the simplicity of Saigon’s setting. The five piece lighting team of Bruno Poet, Warren Letton, Hugh Hamilton, Luke Harris, and Zakk Hein brilliantly juxtapose moments of solemn simplicity with bursts of bright, intense colour. Such lighting throughout sequences of tension makes the scenes feel all the more purposeful. The deep crimson hues illuminating the communist victory parade scene provide it an air of majesty. This, along with the aforementioned evacuation scene are undeniable standouts of the show’s lighting design.
As is often the case in such large scale productions, the lighting effects are unified perfectly with the sound design. Sound Designer Mick Potter oversees the show’s sound and music orchestration. Supported by Nic Gray, Shelly Lee, and William David Brohn, Potter’s sound design magnificently radiates throughout Her Majesty’s Theatre. From the booming thunder of the helicopter and gunfire to the calming melodies of the wedding prayer, the production’s use of sound is all encompassing. Audiences are sure to feel flooded in an atmospheric soundscape which will leave them feeling part of the story. The addition of Orchestra Victoria’s orchestration provides ‘Miss Saigon’ with another layer of prestige.
Bob Avian, Geoffrey Garratt, and Richard Jones’ choreography is another stellar piece to the jigsaw puzzle that is ‘Miss Saigon’. Dance routines are choreographed with precision. A unification of Western and traditional Eastern dances are incorporated throughout – fittingly symbolic of the cross-cultural love story at the show’s forefront. “The Morning of the Dragon” dance sequence is arguably the defining moment for the production’s choreography. Acrobatics, rhythmic marching, and a Chinese Dragon dance provide the performance a feast for audiences’ eyes. The harmonious interplay of ‘Miss Saigon’s’ music, lighting and choreography elicit a sense of divine grandeur.
Akin to many of the mechanics they oversee throughout the production, ‘Miss Saigon’s’ directorial team is of high calibre. The collaboration between Laurence Connor (Director), Michael Rogerson (Technical Director), Theresa Nguyen (Resident Director), Laura Tipoki (Musical Director), Alfonso Casado Trigo (Musical Supervisor), and Jean Pierre Der Spur (Australian Production Direction) is unified by a shared vision. All wish to tell the beloved story with grace, respect and quality, things for which audiences will surely appreciate. Transporting 1970s Saigon to the Melbourne theatre stage is no easy feat, yet Connor’s team manage to create an authentic, ethereal experience for all. As leaders of a production of such titanic proportions, they excel at breathing new life into the well-known story while simultaneously staying faithful to it.
An exceptional cast rounds out the success of the latest production of ‘Miss Saigon’. With a dynamic cast of both established and up-and-coming performers, ‘Miss Saigon’ is vibrantly fresh. A large ensemble cast fleshes out the production. Each member works harmoniously to bring the story to life. A special mention must be given to the child actors of Tam who immediately (and undeniably) will capture the heart of the audience.
The pivotal role of Kim is shared by Abigail Adriano and Louisa Vilienne (the latter for which played the role at the performance this review is based on). Vilienne provides Kim with an earnest vulnerability that is sweet and tragic in equal measure. Her rendition of “I’d Give My Life For You” is a hauntingly beautiful one which is sure to steal audiences’ breaths away.
Nigel Huckle dominates the stage as the embattled Vietnam marine, Chris Scott. His intense respect for the material translates wonderfully to the stage. His duet of “Sun and Moon” with Vilienne is a musical highlight.
The supporting roles of John, Gigi, Thuy, and Ellen are brought to life expertly by Nick Afoa, Kimberley Hodgson, Laurence Mossman, and Kerrie Anne Greenland, respectively. Each has their own moment to shine throughout ‘Miss Saigon’, demonstrating the calibre of their individual and collective talents.
Seann Miley Moore at the flamboyantly conniving Engineer is the undeniable standout, however. From comical quips to impressive vibratos, Miley Moore is captivating from their first scene. Their showstopping performance of “The American Dream” is a shining moment for not only the production, but of Melbourne theatre in 2023.
It is always a cause for celebration when a beloved classic of Broadway graces the Australian stage after a lengthy absence. In the case of the latest production of ‘Miss Saigon’, the merriment is justified and the wait worth it. As it nears its 35th year, ‘Miss Saigon’ continues to prove itself to be a precious jewel in musical theatre’s crown. Regardless of how acquainted audiences are to the show, there is certain to be something there that will captivate them. Theatre lovers are encouraged to see it before the sun sets on this production.
‘Miss Saigon’ performs until Saturday, 16 December 2023 at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre. For more information about the show, or to book tickets, visit Miss Saigon’s website.