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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Arifa Akbar

Miss Saigon review – slick machine of a musical rather than a radical rewrite

Magnificent performances … Christian Maynard and Jessica Lee in Miss Saigon at the Crucible, Sheffield.
Magnificent performances … Christian Maynard and Jessica Lee in Miss Saigon at the Crucible, Sheffield. Photograph: Johan Persson

Last autumn, a theatre company of British east and south-east Asian artists voiced its objection to the staging of Boublil and Schönberg’s Vietnam war musical for its racially reductive stereotypes. Miss Saigon’s producers defended it as an opportunity to reframe the material in a fresh way.

There are many positives in their shiny and accomplished crowdpleaser but this is more of a tweak than a rigorous reimagining. Directed by Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau, it is presented as “the first non replica production” of the musical since its 1989 premiere, with lyrics “modified in collaboration with the show’s original writers”. But the story of Vietnamese “bargirl” Kim (Jessica Lee), who falls fatally in love with Chris (Christian Maynard), an American GI posted in Saigon, feels much like the musical we know, complete with stereotypes. A thoroughly diverse cast has been employed but can casting make the story’s racial stereotypes less problematic? Not always in this case.

Shane O’Riordan (John) and Joanna Ampil (The Engineer) in Miss Saigon.
American dreamers … Shane O’Riordan (John) and Joanna Ampil (The Engineer) in Miss Saigon. Photograph: Johan Persson

The women who work alongside country-girl Kim resemble cliched sex workers in fringed dresses, boob tubes and shorts as The Engineer (Joanna Ampil) orders them to “get your hot pants on” when the GIs emerge – their ticket to a life in the US for which they all long. The wider Vietnamese community remains faceless and Kim’s betrothed, Thuy (Ethan Le Phong), is still a cardboard villain.

Kim is given a welcome steeliness, but there is only so much wiggle room within her role; her sacrifice at the end, to enable her son’s passage to the US, remains fully intact when it might have been an opportunity for revisionism, to counter that other cliche of the woman giving up everything for love (and the American dream).

Yet, for the unresolved politics in this story, Schönberg’s score has a booming beauty, so operatic at times that we can trace it to its original source in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, even if Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr’s lyrics (with additions by Michael Mahler) are rammed with schmaltz. There is thunderous melodrama in the orchestral sound and great swoops of emotion, but it quietens to wistful or melancholic melodies in songs like The Movie in My Mind.

What this production also brings is wow factor in craft and skill. It is a shining machine, slick and visually captivating. Ben Stones’ stage design is clever and uncluttered, with a mobile staircase that gestures at the desire for escape. Jessica Hung Han Yun’s hectic lighting design is full of 1980s pizazz but works well with the big brassy sound. The orchestra, under Chris Poon’s direction, is polished and Jade Hackett’s choreography is imaginative.

And there are a sweep of magnificent performances. Lee’s rich voice contains a well of emotion in songs like I Still Believe and Sun and Moon. Maynard plays Chris with heart and earnestness. Ampil is an adrenalised force as The Engineer, her greatest set piece coming with a voluptuously, grotesquely over-the-top rendition of The American Dream, in which she plays a fevered fantasy version of Marilyn Monroe (“poupoupidou bitches”).

There is undoubted appeal to this show, with its soaring music and swell of romance. But for those who want more than a little revisionism, Kimber Lee’s satirical rejoinder untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play at Manchester’s Royal Exchange gives the musical’s racial politics a more radical overhaul.

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