REVIEW: Miss Saigon

Miss Saigon
Russell Dixon and Christiana Zhu in Miss Saigon

 Spectacle and Saigon [by James Wenley, Musical Geek]

Miss Saigon
Russell Dixon and Christiana Zhu in Miss Saigon

An interesting development over the past few years has been the welcome take-over of the mighty Civic Theatre by ‘amateur’ theatre societies (Harlequin Theatre – Cats, Auckland Music Theatre – Rent, 42nd Street), whilst the big budget overseas touring musical spectaculars have all but dried up… blame the economic times. Indeed, excepting the recent Andrew Lloyd Webber concert, Auckland hasn’t had any spectacle on their stages at all this year.

Until now. North Shore Music Theatre, have brashly and confidently crossed the bridge (we are all one super city now of course) to present Schönberg & Boublil’s grand Miss Saigon.

Inspired by Puccini’s Opera Madame Butterfly, the show opens on the eve of the Fall of Saigon in April 1976 and tells the story of the doomed love affair between American GI Chris and Vietnamese bar girl Kim.

 It’s from the same composer/lyricist partnership that created the smash hit Les Miserables. Miss Saigon debuted at the West End and ran on Broadway for 10years from 1991-2001, and is the 10th longest running Broadway show.

While a massive success, it’s not held with as much universal affection as Les Mis, possibly because the Vietnam war backdrop was a little too close to home for some American public. The show is perhaps most famous for a spectacular set piece involving a deafeningly noisy helicopter landing on the embassy roof to evacuate the American troops.

Curiously, no professional production of Miss Saigon has ever played in New Zealand – it took a consortium of community theatre groups, sharing sets and resources, to join together to get it staged in different regions of New Zealand, starting with Showbiz Christchurch in 2009.

This is my second Miss Saigon. I first saw a professional production of the show in Sydney in 2009 (Juan Jackson who cut a striking buff Frank-N-Furter in last year’s Rocky Horror, was a stand-out John). I was swept away by the sex, dirt and desperation of a Saigon on the eve of the American pull-out,  and the tragic love story (as these stories always are) of the leads. I bought the double CD cast album that night, clutching it tightly on the bus to my hotel room. In the years since I’ve dipped into the show album a number of times, enjoying the melodies and all-out emotional ballads of an utterly brilliant and under-appreciated score.  

So as a fan, I had high expectations for this show. Compared to the professionals, NSMT theatre hold their own. Sure, they didn’t have the same technical whiz-bangery, and a stage hand took a cameo turn on opening night, but the talent and force of the leads and slick playing by the orchestra delivered a moving musical spectacular.

In the show’s initial scenes, first timers would be forgiven for thinking that Tina Cross’ Gigi is the main star in a story about a world-weary Vietnamese prostitute – it is she who steps out from the chorus and catches our full attention with a beautifully sung ‘The movie in my mind’. But hers is not the story we are here for tonight, and Cross soon disappears from the story. While her inclusion has the whiff of big name ‘stunt casting’ to legitimise the show and draw in punters, even with a small role she proves why she has been able to work in this industry for so long.

Her less well-known cast members, meanwhile, absolutely shine. And as they say in show biz, on opening night a star was born.

Her name is Christiana Zhu, by day a Media Advisor at Tourism New Zealand, by night she is lighting up the stage in the tragic role of Kim (which made original star Lea Salonga famous). The show takes the character from the highest of highs and lowest of lows, and Zhu plays the emotional journey superbly.

She is ably supported by ex-weather man Russell Dixon as Chris, whose voice fills the Civic, and together their love duets soar.

John Hellyer is the slimely opportunist ‘The Engineer’ who dreams of going to America (he’s a crook, so would fit right in). He takes a while to find his groove, but when he does he has the audience eating out of his crafty hand. Hellyer’s big and subversive number ‘The American Dream’ (“girls can buy tits by the pair / the American dream“) is a memorable highlight.

Jane Horder does solid work as Chris’ American wife Ellen, allowing us to understand her difficult position, though next to Dixon she does look slightly too ‘mumsy’. James Calcini’s (John) voice is too light for ‘Bui Doi’, but he has great rapport with Dixon and makes a believable GI.

The chorus is massive – 45approx – and filled with pretty young things. The ladies in particular have great fun cavorting round the stage in the early scenes dressed in very little (the male chorus as American GI’s and barmen seem to have great fun too). Leigh Fitzjames deserves special mention for a number of provocative dance solos during which she holds little back!

Sometimes the stage does seem crowded, and the choreography of the chorus less assured. The ‘Morning of the Dragon’ number, in which the Vietnamese celebrate their victory in Ho Chi Minh city, lacked precision.

The male chorus shine in ‘Bui Doi’, an anthem about the forgotten offspring of American soldiers and Vietnamese women, which opens Act One in a rousing fashion.

One of the brilliant flourishes of the show is the pacing of the narrative climaxes, flashing forward and back in time for full emotional effect. The first sequence tracks Kim and Chris’ meeting and falling in love, and  finishes with them in each other’s arms in ‘The Last night of the world’. Jarringly we are then thrust forward three years in time to a renamed Ho Chi Minh city to find Kim alone, haunted by her past, but still hopeful one day she will be reunited with Chris, and the first act ends with a bang. Act Two takes us first to America, then to seedy Bangkok where the Engineer and Kim have now made a home. It’s not till a thrilling flashback to the fall of Saigon (complete with the famous helicopter) that we learn what caused Kim and Chris to be separated.

 Sometimes, the distinction between professional and amateur really does come down to whether artists are paid or not. This Miss Saigon punches far, far above its weight, and holds its own compared to some of the better resourced internationals that come here. An epic musical production of an epic story.

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