Review: Miss Saigon @ Sydney Opera House

'Miss Saigon' - Image © Daniel Boud
Claira Prider is a Sydney-based writer with a background in opera, acting and classical music. She covers operas, musicals and theatre performances.

Written in 1989, 'Miss Saigon' is the second blockbuster musical by duo Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil after their first hit 'Les Misérables'.

Based on Giacomo Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’, ‘Miss Saigon’ follows the story of a young woman’s fight for survival in war-torn Vietnam and the lengths she will go, to ensure her child has a better life than she. Guy Simpson leads the 25-piece orchestra using a combination of western and eastern instrumentation as they raise the roof of the Opera House with Schönberg’s sweeping, epic score.

The work itself is problematic; it’s written by two white guys and perpetuates damaging racial and sexual stereotypes. It portrays Asian women as overly sexualised, American soldiers as saviours despite their arrogance and ignorance, and the only female character on stage who’s not a sex worker happens to be the only white female character. Some adjustments have been made to show the work through a less derogatory lens; changing some lyrics, inserting Vietnamese language into the text, and focusing on showing the female characters as more than whores at the mercy of white men.

In an interview with Sydney Morning Herald, leading cast members Seann Miley Moore and Abigail Adriano comment that they drew on the history and cultural experience of family members for insight to build their characters, which translated into well-realised performances on stage: “As an Asian cast we have something to say, and it’s real. There has been definite strength in that. Everyone knows the official history, but we’re coming from the real stories: that survival, strength, and total veracity to have a better life.”

Miss Saigon Daniel Boud2
Image © Daniel Boud

The plot revolves around Kim, a south Vietnamese 17-year-old, recently orphaned by bombing in her village which she flees and finds herself in Bangkok working in a sleazy bar. The character transforms from naïve and lovesick teenager to fierce and formidable woman who will stop at nothing for her family. Abigail Adriano embodies the role of Kim with utter believability; her instrument is a well of emotion with vocal depth to match and her reprisal of ‘This Is The Hour’ leaves me feeling winded. This young newcomer handles the vocally demanding role with great control, brilliantly carrying the work from her first entrance to final bow.

Nigel Huckle plays the role of Chris, the American soldier who falls in love with Kim after meeting her in a bar just days before he’s due to fly home. While I find the characterisation a bit shmaltzy, Huckle's vocal performance is impeccable and has heartfelt chemistry with both Kim and his American wife Ellen. Seann Miley Moore performs the role of Engineer, the brothel-owning pimp who will do whatever it takes to get to a better life. While still slimy and devious, Miley Moore’s interpretation oozes sex appeal and camp charisma with the most magnetic stage presence. The spectacular cast is rounded out by Kimberley Hodgson as Gigi, Nick Afoa as John and Kerrie Anne Greenland as Ellen.

Andreane Neofitou’s costumes clearly inform the show and reinforces the western and eastern cultural divide and symbolism throughout. Mick Potter’s sound design is powerful and overwhelming, sweeping the audience up in the war-torn world. Bruno Poet’s lighting enhances the terror and cultural divide juxtaposing blinding flashlights and the headlights of the helicopter searching through the gates of the US embassy with the dingy slums, and colourful neon sign filled brothel.

The work is so exuberant and spectacular, at times to the detriment of the cast. It’s so jam-packed with spectacle and special effects that I feel at times it lacks space to breathe, and space to let the phenomenal principal cast stand on their own. It’s a story of survival and sacrifice, and Opera Australia’s 42-strong cast superbly bring this tale to life in Cameron Mackintosh’s epic revival of ‘Miss Saigon’.

★★★★☆ ½.

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