Venue: ARTS Theatre, Angas Street, Adelaide
Season: 8pm nightly to Sat 28th May with 2pm matinee on Sat 28th May 2011
Duration: 2hrs 30min incl interval
Tickets: adult $25/conc $20
Bookings: 8251 3926 or http://www.marieclark.asn.au or BASS 131 241 or http://www.bass.net.au
Following the success of their production, Les Misérables, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, with Boublil joined by Richard Maltby Jnr. to co-write the lyrics, went on to create this musical, which quickly became their second big hit. These are actually their second and third collaborations since their first work together, La Révolution Française, never made it big outside of France, where it was the very first French rock opera. Oddly, though, the creators of this work are not actually acknowledged by name as the composer and lyricists in the printed programme for this production.
It is essentially an updating of Puccini’s opera, Madama Butterfly, which was set in the 1890s in Japan where an American, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, and a geisha, Cio-Cio San, fall in love. This version is set during the Vietnam War and the couple this time are an American GI and a Saigon bar girl.
Having seen amateur companies attempting to stage Les Misérables, and being faced with everything from very creditable productions to complete disasters, it was with some trepidation that I attended this performance. The music is just as difficult in this show as it was in their first one, and there are the audience expectations of the special effects to be dealt with. This places great demands on any company, amateur or professional. It was with great pleasure that I discovered that the first amateur production of this work in Adelaide was a real winner. It has set a high standard for any future productions to match.
Right from the start, as the theatre shook to the sound of a helicopter passing overhead in the darkness, it was clear that this was going to be something special. Director, Max Rayner, has assembled a fine cast and and delved a long way below the surface elements of the script. He is clearly aware that the modern musical needs to be treated like a dramatic play, with fully formed characterisations and understandable reasons for the actions and reactions of those characters.
It opens in April 1975, just before the Americans are forced to retreat, evacuating Saigon and leaving it to the Viet Cong army. American troops, including a Sergeant, Chris, and his good friend, John, are at Dreamland, a sleazy club run by a man known only by his nickname, The Engineer. A new girl, Kim, has arrived from the country where her village has been destroyed and her family killed. John is concerned for his disillusioned friend and pays the Engineer for the girl and a room for the night for Chris in the hope of cheering him up.
He falls in love with her and it transpires that she had been a virgin before that night with Chris. He asks her to stay with him and arrangements are made with the Engineer by John. The girls from the club stage a wedding for them but it is interrupted by Thuy, a cousin of Kim’s to whom her parents had arranged a betrothal when she was only thirteen. He has now become a North Vietnamese army officer and Kim insists that she in no longer obligated to marry him as the arrangement was with her parents, who are now dead. He leaves in anger after he and Chris face one another, pistols drawn.
We jump to three years later and Saigon is now renamed as Ho Chi Minh City. Thuy is now a Commissar and orders the Engineer to find Kim and bring her to him. She is hiding in a slum area still waiting for Chris to return and take her to America. At the same time, Chris is back in the USA, asleep but disturbed, watched by his new wife, Ellen. The Engineer takes Thuy to Kim but he is taken aback when she reveals her son, Tam. He attempts to stab the boy, but she shoots him. When the Engineer learns that Tam is the son of Chris he sees the chance of getting to the USA by pretending to be the boy’s uncle, and he takes them in hand and heads for Bangkok.
The second act opens in America, where John now works for a group trying to connect Vietnamese war children with their American fathers. He has received word of Kim and Tam and informs Chris that he is a father, Chris eventually telling Ellen. The three head for Bangkok to find her. The Engineer, meanwhile, is working in a club in Bangkok where Kim is a dancer and John meets her there, attempting to tell her that Chris has remarried in America, but he cannot bring himself to hurt her.
Kim has a flashback to the day when the Americans fled Saigon, Chris leaving on a helicopter and Kim trapped behind a mesh fence and left behind. This is the famous scene where a helicopter is to appear on stage and take the soldiers home.
She goes looking for Chris, but only Ellen is in the hotel room and the truth is revealed to Kim, who runs out. Chris returns and Ellen explains that she has told Kim that they cannot take her to America but that they are willing to support her son. She further explains that Kim was unhappy with this and wanted Tam to go to America with them, even if it meant never seeing him again. They go after her and she introduces Tam to his father. While they are with the boy she slips away to her room and shoots herself, so that they have no choice but to take Tam to America.
Maylin Superio is delightful as Kim, convincing as an innocent seventeen year old girl (at the start of the story) facing a completely unfamiliar set of circumstances that continually change, and deteriorate around her. She gives us a well considered performance, subtly varying as the changes in her situation affect her, producing a range of emotions that are primarily built on love, first for Chris, then for both him and Tam. Superio shows us in her performance that this love is the basis for everything that she does, even the violence of killing Thuy. Superio makes it clear that this love is what keeps her going and helps her to rise above all that she does and all that happens to her.
James Reed, as Chris, lets us see that emptiness in his character at the start, and it is this that allows him to fall for Kim so quickly. Without that in his performance the instant love would be rather hard to swallow, but his fine portrayal of a man whose life is empty and meaningless, a void that is not just waiting, but desperate to be filled, makes it work. It is then possible to see that, although the nightmares affect him, he is able to push it out of his mind in his waking hours and go on with his life back in America because that emptiness no longer exists once in familiar territory and away from the war.
David MacGillivray is John, another complex character, caught between loyalty to his friend, having feelings of obligation to Kim and her son, and, in the second act, as a reaction to his experiences in the war, particularly due to his closeness to Chris and Kim, now being moved to help all Vietnamese-American children connect with their fathers. MacGillivray’s characterisation is a sympathetic and believable reading of the role.
Thuy could easily be interpreted simply as the ‘bad guy’ of the piece, but James Seow makes him a multidimensional character, expressing a range of emotional responses to his setbacks with Kim. Seow had clearly put a lot of thought into his characterisation.
Omkar Nagesh is the Engineer and, while being a rather villainous character, seemingly interested in nothing but money and getting out of Vietnam to America, and willing to use anybody around him in any way, he also adds a little comedy to the production, relieving the tension occasionally. Nagesh doesn’t waste one moment of his stage time, working hard even when just part of the crowd in the background. His final number, The American Dream, stops the show in a rendition that would be hard to beat by anybody, anywhere.
Michelle Pearson’s well considered portrayal of Ellen is that of a woman suddenly confronted by her husband’s terrible secrets from his past and finding an inner strength to cope with them, and Kate Harrison is also notable in the role of Gigi, a bar girl to whom the Engineer awards the title of Miss Saigon as a way of making the soldiers pay extra for her services. At Kim’s wedding, the bar girls later insist that she is the real Miss Saigon.
Musical Director, Ben Saunders, has found a very competent group of musicians and rehearsed them, the soloists and the chorus well. There are some occasional shaky moments in the orchestra and the vocal harmonies, and the odd soloist that just misses a note here and there, but not enough to detract from an otherwise excellent production. The soloists are all very talented singers and acquit themselves well with this very difficult music and the chorus numbers also produce some marvellous harmonies from a group of skilled singers and dancers.
Choreographer, Iréna Setchell has kept the movement and dance busy and well-paced and the bar girls, especially, have responded with some very raunchy moves, appropriate to the roles that they are playing, not some sadly sanitised version.
Ole Wiebkin’s representational, rather than naturalistic set looks good and works well and is a fine background for the various collections of costumes designed by Merici Thompson and Ann Humphries. The lighting, by Peter Howie and Chris Golding, is another important aspect that has not been overlooked.
As for that scene where the helicopter flies in to take out the retreating GIs, I will say nothing, as that would spoil the effect. You must attend a performance yourself to see, and feel, how that is handled.
This terrific production only has a short run of eight performances and closes on Saturday evening, so don’t delay. Tickets have been selling fast so book now or you might miss out.
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.