The helicopter-blade buzz of Miss Saigon’s return to the West End couldn’t be much louder. Les Miserables got the celluloid treatment in 2012, and the stage show itself has reached its 29th bodice swelling, barricade-manning year. This gorgeous revival of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s still more tragic, Vietnam-era follow-up is unlikely to disappoint the record-breaking number of fans who bought tickets on pre-sales.
Its sung-through narrative is loosely based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, reworked from 1900s Japan to 1970s Vietnam. But where Puccini is so enthralled by his gentle heroine that her lover US Naval Officer Pinkerton doesn’t even get an aria to justify his caddish behaviour in the opera’s second act, this story is a kinder, and their love affair mutual.
Kim and Chris fall in love when his friend and fellow GI John buys him a night with her. It’s her first time at local impresario The Engineer’s Fun Palace, a fantasy brothel lit in neon, and enlivened by his nightly, half-clad “Miss Saigon” pageant. Her parents are dead, and she’s fled her burnt village in the country. The affair the follows is the kind of romance that the phrase “epic love story” could have been coined for. Political turmoil, the wrath of her powerful Vietnamese betrothed, a love ceremony curse, high-kicking choruses of showgirls and soldiers alike, the separation of oceans and that notorious helicopter – all brought to hyper-real life under Laurence Connor’s fluid, teeming direction, which frames minute personal moments like documentary photos against a story-filled human backdrop.
His focus is most tightly pulled around Eva Noblezada’s stunning performance as Kim – it’s all the more startling since she’s been plucked from obscurity in good old-fashioned, star hunting style, and sold as an 18-year-old from North Carolina acing her first ever professional audition. She’s intensely emotional, and young enough to make sense of her naive, impulsive devotion to Chris. Beside her heartbreakingly rich voice, Alistair Brammer is less assurred, and his vocal tone is sometimes faltering. But his transformation from emotional soldier to settled-down New Yorker, his baby-blonde curls tamed and his manner hardened, is utterly convincing. Pushing himself between them, brothel-owner The Engineer is a kind of sustained satire on American capitalism with all the subtlety of a 20 foot high girl bar billboard.
Through the war’s brutality, Kim and Chris sing of the relief they find in escaping to “the movie in my head”, but The Engineer’s determined to make his dreams of Hollywood glitz real – Jon Jon Briones navigates his vast show tunes with equally vast reserves of vigour and charisma. After singing about his American dream, he to the audience and asks us “wasn’t that something?”. Reeling as a white Cadillac rolls off stage, carrying a glitter-encrusted woman in a mink coat, and escorted by a calvacade of high-kicking showgirls under a sky of vast gilded dollar signs, it’s impossible not to agree.
Matt Kinley’s gorgeously lavish set is masterfully lit by Bruno Poet in a design that uses darkness as its most powerful tool. Gloomy, hazy scenes are lit by lanterns, or by the light coming from Kim’s room high above a bustling Saigon street.
Although there are more nuances to this musical’s approach to the fraught racial and social tensions of the Vietnam War that the controversies over the production’s original casting wouldn’t suggest, there are still some elements of its approach that feel dated. The bui doi song is particularly uncomfortable, with a kind of Earth Song American-messianic message and mawkish projected footage of orphanages sitting ill with the way that the “bui doi” label, helpfully translated to suggest that the Vietnamese despised interracial children as “the dust of life”, is actually a generic term for street children.
But the other sense in which Miss Saigon feels like a throwback are a little more welcome. As the era of mega-budget new West End musicals vanishes in a puff of smoke – like Simon Cowell’s investment in I Can’t Sing! – its vast cast and astonishingly lavish, haze-drenched setting are genuinely thrilling. This is a sparkling and dark vision of wartime Vietnam and New York; one that finds stark emotional and aesthetic contrasts all the more easily because Schönberg and Boublil are outsiders to both cultures, and claim allegiance to neither.