Miss Saigon continues at Malmö Opera until 30 January 2014.
The Malmö Opera is one of three Swedish opera houses that regularly has musical theatre in its repertoire. Malmö, like Gothenburg, has to deal with the challenge of a vast main stage and a big house. Finding the right musical of the right quality which fills both stage and auditorium is the problem. In recent years these have included Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Misérables and Evita, often directed by Ronny Danielsson. But the Malmö Opera also aims to produce new Swedish musicals like Carmencita Rockefeller and lesser known American titles like Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (both in 2013) as well as the the German-language musical Rebecca (opening February 2014). They venue also tours the region with smaller productions.
Miss Saigon, unlike Les Misérables, is a Boublil/Schönberg musical that is not often produced in Scandinavia. Miss Saigon had its Swedish premiere in Stockholm in 1998, then the Malmö Opera was next in line to stage the show in 2002, but this time in English. That production was, in part, transferred to the Gothenburg Opera two years later. Now, a bit over a decade later, Miss Saigon is back at the Malmö Opera.
This production has a new, fresh and poignant translation by Rikard Bergqvist. The team from the 2011 production of Les Mis is back: director Danielsson, set designer Martin Chocholousek, choreographer Roger Lybeck and costume designer Annsofi Nyberg. It is a great collaboration.
Chocholousek’s set design is both beautiful and disturbing: dirty and messy in the crowded bar scene, shown against a backdrop of blocks and blocks of peep shows. Simple and clean in the intimate scenes, like Kim’s room, the Bangkok hotel room and the suggestion of Chris and Ellen’s home in the US. Lybeck is a brilliant choreographer in musical theatre, with a great interest in storytelling. In this production his best work lies in portraying the monotonous and soulless business of selling sex and dreams at Engineer’s club Dreamland.
Staging, set design and lighting paint the large ensemble scenes in bold operatic brush strokes, evoking a sense of ruthless history in the making. The intimate scenes, for instance Chris and Kim’s first night and the wedding ceremony, are played out well. For the song ‘The American Dream’, though, storytelling is overshadowed by a desire to just fill the stage, it seems. A gospel choir, flying pin-ups, a parade of sellable women in red-white-blue as inspired by a Victoria’s Secret lingerie runway show. Here more is not more, just messy. And it diffuses the great work done by stage veteran Dan Ekborg as the desperate Engineer, savouring his last chance to escape to the US.
Danielsson has gathered a strong cast of principals. Li-Tong Hsu as Kim is a gem. She is vulnerable, strong, innocent and raging. She portrays Kim’s development with great integrity and a beautiful and touching voice, from terrified 17-year-old about to be forced into prostitution to strong-willed survivor ready to do anything for her child. Li-Tong Hsu is Dutch of Chinese origin, so it’s all the more impressive that she has learned the part in Swedish and delivers it almost perfectly.
Philip Jalmelid as Chris has one of the best voices musical theatre in Sweden has to offer. That magnificent, effortless voice paired with honest acting full of curiosity and temper brings this Chris far away from American stereotype. Sometimes Jalmelid forgets about character and acting in favour of singing, but most of the time he remains the torn young man in the midst of events.
Ekborg creates an Engineer who is more desperate than sleazy, a victim of circumstance just trying to survive. This humanity and truly three-dimensional quality of character can also be found in Cecilie Nerfont Thorgersen’s Ellen. In this production Ellen’s song ‘Now That I’ve Seen Her’ has been replaced by the new song ‘Maybe’. Worth mentioning are also Oscar Pierrou Lindén as John and Kitty Chan as Gigi.
The opera orchestra, led by conductor Per-Otto Johansson, sounds magnificent throughout, but the strings and the percussion are worth an extra mention. The orchestra’s placement on stage, upstage, draws extra attention to the musical language of the show.
Grand and heartbreakingly human though it might be – the story of Miss Saigon lacks the European connection that Les Mis has. Audiences are much less familiar with the music and songs of Miss Saigon than those of the last few productions at the Malmö Opera, and that fact seems to cause something of a distance between stage and auditorium.
There is an ongoing debate in Sweden (and Norway): is it right that theatres subsidised by public funds should produce ‘commercial’ musicals, thus possibly competing with commercial producers in an unfair way? It’s a complex question worth examining in depth. But one thing is evident: a commercial producer would be unlikely to be able to mount a production of Miss Saigon with such full orchestrations. Theatres like the Malmö Opera are a blessing in an industry where more often backing tracks or reduced orchestrations are viewed as artistically acceptable solutions.
Readers may also be interested in: Mackintosh reveals Miss Saigon 2014 cast