Some musicals carry you along on their well-known hits, like Mamma Mia The Musical! Others find that their power lies in the drama they are telling and the music amplifies the story and gives us insight into the characters. Such a musical is Miss Saigon, which opened on Friday night for Opera Australia at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
In a nutshell, the production is wonderful, and audiences become fully immersed in the rollercoaster ride as we follow 17-year-old innocent Vietnamese girl from the country, Kim, who is forced to flee to the city after the death of her parents in the Vietnam War. And there is no shortage of work if you are not too choosy, as Kim falls into the clutches of the conniving Engineer, whose business is providing girls for the pleasure of the US soldiers who are fighting in this internal war between North and South.
If you are an opera buff, then you will already know that this is the Madama Butterfly story, adapted and updated in a totally new story that has come from the pen of the creators of the blockbuster Les Misérables musical.
This is an in-your-face story, and hopefully we haven’t become desensitised to the horror of what war does to people and how the women in this story are simply bodies to rent, to be abused and used. Personally, I found myself cringing throughout the show, simply at what these women are going through. How can humans treat their fellows like this? But as we all know, that question has no answer.
Young Kim falls in love with US soldier Chris, and a mock ceremony proclaims them married. Chris is forced to evacuate with his fellow soldier John, in an amazing scene where they clamber onto a helicopter high above the stage. Kim is desperate to find Chris and go with him, and Chris tries fruitlessly to take her with him, but to no avail.
Skip forward a few years and Chris is happily married to American Ellen, but still wakes with war nightmares screaming Kim’s name. Meanwhile, Kim has borne his son, Tam, and she is convinced that Chris will come back for them, and they can be a family. There are so many of these mixed-race children who were abandoned, so in America John is working with an organisation to take responsibility for America’s shame and help those children. John, Chris and Ellen travel to Bangkok, where many refugees fled to, to find Kim again working for the Engineer to survive. Everybody finds each other, but, as in the opera, the ending is tragic, yet there is an element of hope for a future in which things will be different.
For me, the standout performance was 19-year-old Abigail Adriano as Kim. She embraced the challenge of playing Kim from an ingenue to a young mum, and every time her heart bled, so did ours. She has an impressive vocal range and is a fine actor, and I was in awe of her brilliant performance.
Every tragic story needs comic relief, and Seann Miley Moore was superb as the sleazy but charismatic Engineer. He is quite loathsome in the way he treats the girls he employs, and is certainly not someone you might like to take home to meet Mother. But there is a clue to what has made him this way when he refers to having had to be a pimp for his mother to survive. What hope did he have? He is desperate to escape and get to America, but his schemes don’t come to fruition. Moore commanded the stage and provided the much-needed occasional belly laugh to release the tension. He has been described as a star and he certainly is one.
As Kim’s spurned suitor from her childhood, who becomes Viet Cong soldier Thuy, Lawrence Mossman really impressed me with his powerful voice that simply commanded my attention every time he opened his mouth. It was his rich voice ringing in my ears that I remembered as I left the theatre.
Nigel Huckle’s Chris was a sympathetic character that really showed the impact of war and being trapped between two worlds – a believable characterisation and vocally secure. As his wife Ellen, Kerrie Anne Greenland showed us a beautiful mezzo voice and a warm and engaging character. The final female principal was the feisty whore, Gig, played with gusto by Kimberley Hodgson.
My only disappointment was the voice of Nick Afoa as John. I enjoyed him as an actor but in the show’s big showstopper, Bui Doi, to my ears he was underpowered vocally and the song just didn’t have the impact it should have.
However, one less than perfect element certainly doesn’t affect the power of this wonderful production. Hats off to the technical staff who managed one of the best sound support systems I have ever heard – they did their job by supporting the singers but never over-amplifying them – and the costumes were superb. The creative team of Laurence Connor, Bib Avian, Geoffrey Garratt, Andreane Neofitou Alfonso Casado Trigo and Guy Simpson should all take a well-earned collective bow.
Take your tissues but snap up a ticket to Miss Saigon now before it sells out.
Photo credit: Daniel Boud
Julie Houghton reviewed Opera Australia’s production of “Miss Saigon” presented at Her Majesty’s Theatre on November 3, 2023.