Adapted from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly to be set in Saigon during the Vietnam War, Miss Saigon has achieved cult musical status since Schönberg and Boublil introduced it in 1989. It launched the career of Lea Salonga and here I would tentatively add that the young Eva Noblezada (at the time of casting in 2013 she was just eighteen), now playing Kim, has an even better voice and demeanour for the part.
The simple and tragic boy-meets-girl story depicts an orphaned country girl newly arrived in the city of Saigon in 1975, working in a bar with other girls selling their wares. She quickly falls in love with an American GI stationed there during the Vietnam War who fights to protect her from the lewd advances of other soldiers at the bar. The story requires you to abandon all cynicism and put every faith into the power of love.
Kim (Eva Noblezada) is undeniably incredible. There is something magical about the gentleness and sincerity of her voice and poise. Natalie Mendoza’s first iteration of the ‘Movie in the Mind’ motif, in the role of Gigi, was masterfully controlled and her lower range in particular powerfully captured her struggles and dreams to flee Saigon. This set up almost perfectly the contrast with Noblezada’s light and innocent tone, as she takes over the second half of the piece.
Unfortunately, this masterclass in voice pairing failed to be repeated in the Chris and Kim duets. Chris Peluso as our musical hero had a noticeably weak voice, especially in comparison to Noblezada’s. It lacked depth and resonance, struggled particularly with the top range and only just reached the falsetto notes. I can only assume he was cast for the six pack.
The ensemble scenes lacked the diction required to transmit the lyrics, especially in the opening numbers which carried all the spectacle but none of the story. The heat was on without any of the clarity. This criticism can also be applied to the lighting design which in attempting to create a gloomy atmosphere frequently failed to pick out the expressions and faces of the actors. The “Dreamland” neon sign striking over the set was a stroke of genius: asking us throughout to note the irony of ‘dreams’ in the play. Even the notorious helicopter scene was, for me, disappointing – although I would concede that perhaps with lower expectations it might seem ‘incredible’.
The couple of understudy performances I saw from Claire Parrish as Ellen, Chris’ American wife, and Christian Rey Marbella as The Engineer were unremarkable. In fact, Parrish was at times pitchy and I felt deeply uncomfortable watching Marbella’s ‘The American Dream’, which bums everything I hate about America (gold, greed, capitalism).
Aside from the specific lets downs in this production with the new 2015 cast, there are a number of problematic aspects to the musical itself. The only women (Kim and Ellen) who apparently deserve love are the virginal or innocent ones. All the other women in the play are prostitutes – where are the strong, unvictimised female roles? The Vietnemese in the story are either victimised or americanised; objects of charity or subjects of the american dream. Why does the West End so frequently and uncritically present American musicals? Surely we don’t still believe America is the promised land of opportunity?
Miss Saigon as a musical overall feels like a jazzed-up presentation of a horrific war, assigning American wartime guilt onto the love story of a single couple, in order to displace it. This production in particular disperses that guilt into the past; an engaged production might take account of the continuing blight to the Vietnemese nation from Agent Orange. That being said, I would go simply to witness the angelic voice of Noblezada and an unbelievably cute child.
Thanks to the #LDNTheatreBloggers, Official Theatre and the Prince Edward.
Miss Saigon is booking until December 2015. Visit the following website for details: princeedward.londontheatres.co.uk
Photos: Michael Le Poer Trench, depicting the 2013 London Cast