Miss Saigon continues at the Broadway Theatre, New York until 13 January 2018.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Miss Saigon is back on Broadway in all its breathtaking pop opera glory – and then some.
Cameron Mackintosh has transported this revival, which closed in London in February 2016, to the New York stage, apparently with – as old-time showbiz promoters liked to say – no expense spared.
The signature spectacles continue intact: the hovering helicopter, the foreboding giant statue of Ho Chi Minh, and the teeming streets and nightclub/brothels of Saigon and Bangkok.
An orchestra of 18 musicians gives full symphonic value to the cascading excitations of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music, while allowing full appreciation of the storytelling in the lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr, and Alain Boublil, based on Boublil’s original French text. (There are additional lyrics by Michael Mahler.)
Masterfully directed by Laurence Connor with musical staging and choreography by Bob Avian, the company of more than 45 performers realise in enthralling terms the epic proportions of this tale of love torn asunder in the ravages of the Vietnam War.
Four of the principals from the West End company head the cast with extraordinary performances, making sure that the Madam Butterfly-inspired story remains a heart-breaker for the 21st Century.
They are Eva Noblezada as Kim, the young orphaned woman from a Vietnamese village who finds work as a Saigon bargirl; Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer, the hawker for Saigon’s Dreamland sex palace and who for his own ulterior motives becomes Kim’s protector; Alistair Brammer as Chris, the American soldier who falls deeply in love with Kim and then is forced to abandon her as Saigon falls to the Communists; and, impressive in a less prominent role, Rachelle Ann Go as Gigi, the experienced bargirl who befriends Kim.
Both Noblezada and Brammer handle the demands of the score with incredible ease, and as the music soars, they transform the Broadway belt into something quite beautiful. Their climactic duet, ‘Last Night of the World’, sizzles with sexual passion as well as the ecstatic joy of two souls connecting.
As The Engineer, Briones is an absolute dynamo. When the original production of Miss Saigon came to New York in 1991 (to run for nearly 10 years), there was considerable hullaballoo over its casting, most particularly the Tony Award-winning turn of Jonathan Pryce as The Engineer. But Briones, who is Philippine-born and bred, brings much more than racial authenticity to the role.
He manages the feat of being both infinitely sleazy and infinitely likeable. By the time he stops the show with his monumental 11 o’clock number, ‘The American Dream’ (complete with its Ziegfeld-like showgirls and chorus boys and glittering convertible car), he has put his indelible mark on a role that for uniquely irresistible malice rivals the Master of Ceremonies in Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, and Fagin in Lionel Bart’s Oliver!
‘The American Dream’ number, with its Brechtian depiction of unstoppable greed, now includes an audience-rousing tag line for the Trump era, with The Engineer promising to “make it great again”. Meanwhile, the implicit criticism of the West’s misadventures in Asia and the misogyny of the cultures continue to give the show political grit.
Also making notable contributions in the New York cast are Nicholas Christopher as Chris’ army pal; Katie Rose Clarke as Chris’ American wife Ellen, winning plaudits for her aria, ‘Maybe’; and Devin Ilaw as Thuy, who was once Kim’s youthful betrothed in her village and who now is a Communist official.
The show still has its rocky moments, especially when Chris and Ellen learn three years after Vietnam that Kim is alive and has given birth to Chris’ child, and the couple debates what to do for and with them.
Still, these are the kind of plot potholes easily forgiven in the overall sweep of the show, which seems to have taken on ever more lustre with the years. It may be time to drop the nomenclature pop when describing this opera-like work and simply call it grand.