Miss Saigon: embracing a collision of cultures

Miss Saigon first opened its doors at Drury Lane in 1989, with less than 15 years having passed since the Vietnam War. The show explored the plight of Vietnamese refugees, the horror of the genocidal regime in Cambodia, and the Bui Doi – or ‘Dust of Life’– the ostracised children made as a result of relations between American servicemen and the Vietnamese women, more often than not prostitutes. 29 years on, Miss Saigon arrived at Oxford Road as part of a UK and Ireland tour in what is the start of a two-month long residency at Manchester’s Palace theatre.

An adaption of Puccini’s 1903 opera Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon tells the story of 17-year-old peasant girl Kim, and Chris, an American marine who has been deployed in Vietnam.

In a collision of cultures, our lovers are bound together in ceremony akin to a marriage – only for Chris to later discount the union while Kim makes a true promise to wait a lifetime for him. War and politics interfere and tear the two apart; Chris returns to America and resumes his life while Kim is left amongst the dust, desperate, unwaverly loyal – and pregnant.

The tale is a tragic one. However, the narrative doesn’t come without its fun – a highlight of which comes in the form of the Engineer, a sleazy, opportunistic pimp who first finds Kim and brings her back to his club. The role, first played controversially by Jonathan Price, was later passed on to Jon Jon Briones who made the engineer his own. Ironically once an engineering student, Briones’ 25-year journey with Miss Saigon saw him progress from ensemble to the infamous role.

Now it’s Red Concepción’s turn. Clad in the iconic electric purple blazer, complete with Elvis quiff and slimy grin, he reinterprets the role and creates his very own Engineer who I’m sure will bring joy to hundreds of theatregoers to come. The American Dream is a delight. Sooha Kim plays Kim to perfection – innocent and naïve, yet as the narrative progresses becoming determined and ruthless. She expertly navigates her attitudes from lovestruck teenager to surviving mother – songs that spring to mind especially include The Movie in My Mind, You Will Not Touch Him and I’d Give My Life For You.

Ashley Gilmour plays US soldier Chris, who falls for Kim – a perfect casting with vocals worthy of a leading man. In Puccini’s opera, Pinkerton (Chris’ equivalent in Madame Butterfly) is a villain; not in the evil sense, instead his character is described as weak, selfish and arrogant. There are clear parallels between this portrayal of weakness and the behaviour of Laurence Connor’s Chris. I felt his was a much clearer illustration of Chris as the weak and misunderstanding soldier than in past productions. The song The Confrontation, involving his American wife Ellen (Zoë Doano), Chris and John made this explicitly clear and rather sad.

Gerald Santos plays Thuy, once promised to Kim when they were children. A difficult role to master, I felt Santos didn’t quite portray it with the menace it deserved. Likewise, John (Ryan O’Gorman) did a fantastic job of playing Chris’ friend and fellow soldier, though I felt he held back in his vocal performance.

It also seemed the timing of certain songs such as Kim’s Nightmare – a triumph in itself – was slightly off, however this was a rare occurrence. Furthermore, the dancing in The Morning of the Dragon at times wasn’t as precise as I feel the company set out to make it. I also found it quite odd that during this engaging scene (and towards the end of This is the Hour), comprising the entirety of the Vietnamese army in Ho Chi Minh City, the white faces of the ensemble were far more visible, which took away from the overall desired effect, especially when the show has such a diverse cast.

This tour of Miss Saigon is a triumph. The set is truly something that must be seen to be believed, especially the iconic helicopter scene. The orchestra, under the direction of James McKeon, performed seamlessly and expertly throughout the show.

If you can get a ticket, I would highly advise you do. It’s rare that touring productions of this quality, class and pedigree visit Manchester. A full house, joy, tears, and a roaring, standing ovation encapsulates everything you need to know about what was a truly brilliant night at the theatre.

Filed under: Theatre & Dance