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Miss Saigon

By Angie Bedford

miss siagon

Miss Saigon

miss siagon
miss siagon

Miss Saigon is the brainchild of Frenchman Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (Les Miserables).

An adaptation of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon premiered in 1989 and has since played to massive audiences worldwide. 

Cameron Mackintosh’s new production of Miss Saigon came to Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre in 2007, but has been absent from the musical scene since.

So as a self-confessed crazed fan of that production, I was thrilled to hear the Saigon drought would end with CLOC’s production, and eagerly made my way to the Alexander Theatre for Opening Night.

After a night of awe and (discreet!) tears, I can confidently say CLOC produced a fantastic production of this epic musical.

Miss Saigon really has it all – a tragic love story, a snapshot of world history, a killer score… and of course, a little Broadway spectacle.

The story begins in 1975, and the "heat is on" in a sleazy nightclub called Dreamland, hosted by the seedy entrepreneur known as The Engineer (Jamie McGuane).

The Engineer’s latest bargirl is Kim (Bianca Baykara), a recently orphaned 17 year old. Along with the other girls, Kim is judged in a faux beauty pageant – ‘Miss Saigon’, where the winner is raffled off to an American soldier.

Gigi (Bree Truscott) is crowned, however it is Kim who catches the eye of GI Christopher Scott (Mark Doran), and she is bought for him by his best friend John (Toby Truscott).

After spending the night together, Kim and Chris fall in love, and they undergo a Vietnamese marriage ceremony.  The American troops are then withdrawn from Saigon, and Kim and Chris and torn apart.

What follows is Kim’s desperate struggle for survival and desire for Chris to return to her, and, a son, Tam (Matthew Lin/Frank Xu/Joey Xu), he doesn’t know exists. Kim’s struggle is complicated by the return of her betrothed, Thuy (Nicholas Kong), and Chris’ marriage to an American woman, Ellen (Alana Kiely).

The real strength of this production was the consistent vision across the board.

Every detail – from choreography to the smallest prop had its place. Sometimes the best productions are those that allow you to get lost in the story and don’t require constant concentration – and while I found myself recalling highlights for days, on Friday night, Director Bradtke succeeded in immersing the audience in the world of Saigon.

This consistency really applied to the cast, as CLOC’s Saigon was less about ‘stars’ and more about teamwork. The plot does focus on Kim and Chris, but I really appreciated the other characters so much more than in the past.

It is a credit to Michael Loughlin’s Musical Direction.

Initially I was hanging for the ‘big’ notes made famous by the casts of the past, but there were no imitators here – just raw meaning conveyed by well-controlled voices. The Orchestra were also sharp and moved along a great pace throughout 30 or so songs.

CLOC president Grant Alley describes the cast as a “United Nations of talent”. I think the multi-cultural cast were used to great effect, with a number of the ensemble playing both Caucasian and Asian roles – and before I forget, CLOC have three beautiful boys playing the role of Tam.

On this occasion, Matthew Lin received the collective “awwwws” when he first appeared.

The ensemble men were at their strongest in Bui Doi, lead by the talented Toby Truscott as John. You could’ve heard a pin drop when they were belting out those crisp harmonies. The ensemble was heart rendering as they desperately begged to escape Saigon in Kim’s Nightmare (The Fall of Saigon 1975).

The Morning of the Dragon was also performed well.  It was a credit to choreographer Lynette White for keeping the movement varied and smooth in such a long dance number with so many performers! That said, all of White’s choreography was deliberate and well executed.

I particularly liked the quartet featuring Bree Truscott (Gigi), Jasmine Kwan (Yvette), Frieda Lai (Yvonne), Franceska Leoncio (Mimi). These stunners were a joy to watch and sang and moved well.

Mark Doran owned his performance of Chris, with an incredible voice and stage presence. Chris is a crucial representation of the young American soldier in Vietnam who is looking for answers and trying to comprehend the world around him. Doran’s beautiful delivery of Why God Why? really set the standard of the evening.

The role of Kim is strenuous for the performer. She is rarely offstage and the audience follows her journey as an innocent orphan to lover, mother and victim. Bianca Baykara did a commendable job. While initially I found her restrained, she soon showed her strengths. I particularly found her most convincing as a hardened victim, filled with a sense of independence and an instinctive maternal responsibility. Baykara sung the challenging role with sincerity and understanding.

I’ve always seen the Engineer as a bit of a ‘common man’ – an over the top commentator so distinct from the rest of Saigon. Jamie McGuane’s Engineer had these elements, but I appreciated the naturalism in his role. Despite the Engineer’s arrogant and independent exterior, McGuane also conveyed his desperation.

I think it is easy to get caught up in the humour and spectacle of American Dream, however McGuane’s delivery was spot on. It came complete with the trademark moves and charisma, but the introduction was fantastic storytelling; his performance highlight.

I enjoyed Alana Kiely’s performance as Ellen, a role you may barrack for, or love to hate. Ellen is essentially an innocent party, but she is crucial in determining Kim’s fate. What I took from this performance was also Ellen’s confusion and ignorance, evident in Kiely’s moving Now That I’ve Seen Her.

Nick Kong also performed well as Thuy, Kim’s cousin and betrothed, who becomes a high-ranking Viet Cong solider, but really seemed like a boy in man’s clothing. Nick sang well, particularly in Kim’s Nightmare (Fall of Saigon 1975), it was a pity we couldn’t see his face well. Otherwise the lighting (by Stelios Karagiannis) was fantastic, maintaining a foreboding overtone throughout, aside from the red, white and blue palette in American Dream.

I found a few errors in sound as some of the vocals were a little muffled and overpowered by the orchestra, although this improved in the second Act. I must also commend the performers for pushing on while the monitors of their conductor were in the stages of dying and death throughout Act One.

Costume design by Miranda Kalgovas was thorough and accurate from footwear to military uniforms.  Every piece had its purpose. Standout’s included Kim’s beautiful marriage costume, the American dreamgirl ensembles, the Engineer’s red sheer outfit complete with ‘pimp’ chains, and the colourful variety of tragic clunky heels and thrifty lingerie on the Dreamland girls that still managed to blend beautifully!

Set by Brenton Staples brought Saigon to life. Made up of two staircases and several modules, Staples’ set twisted and turned every which way to create countless locations. It was remarkable planning, and ably executed by Bernard and Gemma Hedger’s diligent crew, particularly for the mid-scene changes.

I also loved the use of the boat at the end of Act One (chilling symbolism) and the electric set lighting that went wherever Ellen did, the lamps and TV were a nice touch of technology!  Properties by Karen Warrington were extensive and detailed – I loved the filing cabinet on wheels! You couldn’t ask for more from these designers.

And I mustn't forget to mention the helicopter, although I won’t be spoiling anything! I will just say 10/10. It was timed perfectly and had me hooked. A great technical achievement.

An amazing production. A highly recommend interpretation of Miss Saigon... if you can get a ticket!

"Miss Saigon"
Director: Chris Bradtke
Choreography: Lynette White
Where: Alexander Theatre, Monash University, Clayton.
Bookings: www.cloc.org.au

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