OSMaD captures the emotional power of modern classic Miss Saigon, distinguishing the new production with a perfectly cast set of performers and a generously sized orchestra.
Around the world, musical theatre productions face a difficulty in casting racially/culturally appropriate performers. Full credit to OSMaD for casting every role and ensemble member in Miss Saigon without compromise, attracting highly talented performers of the requisite nationality backgrounds. The resulting production is all the more powerful.
A natural follow-up to their success with Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s Les Misérables last year, OSMaD gives Miss Saigon a similarly large-scale treatment. The splendid orchestra, led by music director Tim Verdon, features 22 musicians, eclipsing the 16 players of the recent West End revival. Adding to the enjoyment of hearing these musicians is the welcome use of a wide open orchestra pit. As well as leading the orchestra in a stirring performance of Schönberg’s operatically inclined score, Verdon also delivers rich chorus harmonies from the large ensemble.
Loosely based on revered opera Madama Butterfly, gritty musical Miss Saigon was originally known for “landing a helicopter on stage,” but its ongoing appeal is based on magnificent music, a highly affecting love story and a wrenching time jump in the story that is not resolved until later in act two. Innocent farm girl Kim meets and falls wildly in love with American GI Chris on her first night in Saigon. Three years later, with Saigon now renamed Ho Chi Minh City, Kim and Chris live a world apart, both haunted by the great love they shared.
Director Amy Bryans draws committed, passionate performances from the cast, with energy high but well calibrated so as to keep a strong sense of realism. Bryans adds a prologue on the streets of Saigon, clearly establishing The Engineer’s ever-present opportunism in coming across Kim and quickly taking her into his fold of night club dancers and prostitutes. When Kim finally flees Saigon, she joins a mass of dirty, scared characters crammed onto a small boat to seek refuge in another land, creating a chilling final image for act one.
The large stage of the Geoffrey McComas Theatre can be both a blessing and a curse, accommodating abundant scenic elements and cast members, but requiring extra effort to draw the eye to key characters or create intimacy. Set designer Richard Perdriau has provided a broad set of various levels and Bryans makes full use of this space; at times, however, this means it can be hard for the audience to know where to look. After a somewhat unfocused opening sequence, the show really takes off after the fall of Saigon. The celebratory pageant for the third anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam is totally spectacular, all the more so for the brilliant use made of the mighty paper dragon.
Another intelligent touch in Bryan’s direction is the slight change in the opening of act two, beginning with John in a support group for men with PTSD from the Vietnam war before shifting to the usual scene of John addressing a gathering about the plight of “Bui-Doi,” children of marines left behind after the war.
Working on a budget, Perdriau’s set makes clever use of abstract shapes, crafting patchwork collages of corrugated iron and fabric to give the impression of makeshift accommodation. The bright lights of Bangkok’s sexual quarter are simply but effectively conveyed with a set of neon triangles. The action is framed by rows of hanging bamboo screens, which at times look a bit stark, but pick up the light to create atmospheric texture, particularly across the back wall.
The success of the famous helicopter scene is the combination of Perdriau’s design, Vanessa Burke’s lighting and Steve Cooke’s sound design. The escaping soldiers seem to actually disappear into the chopper, which we clearly hear fly in and out overhead. At other times’ Burke’s lighting could have better aided audience focus, but certainly provides an abundance of lush, well-chosen colour.
Costume designer Louise Parsons supports the strong sense of realism, giving the GIs authentically weathered uniforms, and not shying away from the sleazy, skimpy outfits required for the Dreamland girls. After all the grit, the glossy glamour of the ensemble in The Engineer’s 11 o’clock number “The American Dream” is quite the spectacle. This number also benefits from the creative choreography of Kristy Griffin, who works cleverly to optimise the skills of the cast.
Experienced singer Mei Wah Chan proves an absolute natural for the stage as Kim, singing the beloved role beautifully and maintaining a highly natural presence that significantly enhances the impact of the drama. Chan has strong chemistry with all of her fellow actors and drives the story clear focus and commitment.
Dom Hennequin gives a breakout performance as The Engineer, delighting the audience by underpinning the desperate man’s scheming and grafting with a glittering sparkle in his eye. Not only is “The American Dream” a memorable showstopper but act one ballad “If You Want to Die in Bed” also lands brilliantly, deservedly earning rousing applause.
Seen again in a reliably likeable leading performance, Owen Clarke utilises his hardy tenor voice to convey the passion, confusion and desperation of young soldier, Chris.
Samuel Fung proves a superb fit for Kim’s betrothed cousin Thuy, taking the troubled young man on a journey from country youth to disciplined, driven military man. Even as a ghost in act two, Fung continues the intriguing level of performance.
Matthew Tomlin is in excellent voice in the somewhat underwritten role of John, best friend to Chris. Guada Bañez makes a strong early impression as jaded sex worker Gigi, singing “The Movie in My Mind” with tender beauty.
Grace Kingsford elevates the featured role of Chris’ new wife Ellen with her powerhouse vocals and strong acting. Drawing hearty audience acclaim, Kingsford’s performance of “Now That I’ve Seen Her” is all the more striking for the natural manner in which she segues from reflective recitative into the song.
On opening night, disciplined young actor Marcus Cheng was adorable as Tam, interacting in a very cute manner with The Engineer.
Seen far more rarely than workhorse Les Misérables, this production of Miss Saigon has much for audiences to enjoy.
Miss Saigon plays at Geoffrey McComas Theatre, Scotch College, Melbourne until 26 October 2019.
Photos: Ben Fon