Theatre Review: Miss Saigon 25th Anniversary Performance

About a week ago, I went with my parents to watch the cinema broadcast of the 25th Anniversary celebration of Miss Saigon at  the Odeon cinema in Mansfield.  Miss Saigon will always have a very special place in my heart. It was the first musical I ever went to see in the West End and I firmly believe it began my love of musicals.

I was a little disappointed to discover that the performance was actually filmed 2 years ago, back in 2014. Normally, these theatre things would be slightly more recent than that.  Still, I settled back to enjoy what I was sure was going to be an amazing show.

The last time I saw Miss Saigon live was in about 1990 when I was around 5 or 6  (I’m hoping to find the original programme so I can find out the exact date). Since then my love of the show has continued thanks to the original cast soundtrack. Being so young, it’s hard to remember the exact details of the show.  I know far more about how the musical sounds, than how it looks

There were quite a few parts of the show that I didn’t remember and the staging seemed very unfamiliar. My Dad informs me it has been altered a lot and further investigation has told me that the show was redesigned for its revival in 2014. More noticeably for me, there had been a fair few changes to the score. Some of the lyrics were altered or cut. I fully understand that shows have to evolve and adapt for a modern audience, but it is quite jarring when you have certain words fixed in your head and the cast sing something different.

Anyway, enough about what the show used to be – I’ll get back to that later.  I should probably apologise now for just how long this review is actually going to be, but there’s just so much I want to say.  Starting with – was this show actually any good?

Err..oh my goodness, yes it was.  It was clear that in the revival they’ve gone for a much grittier, more realistic interpretation of the story,  The images of violence, war and sex were harsher and more intense.  It packed an emotional punch on a level that went so far beyond the love story that forms the central plot.

Oo  – Disclaimer:  While I’m certainly not going to do a full plot summary in this review, I am going to be talking about certain scenes, themes or plot points that could be classed as spoilers.  If you haven’t seen the show and you want to go in blind, you may want to look away now.

The lead role of Kim was played by Eva Noblezada.  In her first few scenes she appeared very timid and unassuming, but it soon became clear that this was just an example of her proficiency as an actress.  I was blown away by her change from naive, terrified girl to the strong, determined woman she becomes by the end of the show.  Her voice was stunning and so powerful – I felt every fraction of emotion from her, even through a cinema screen.

The only fault I could pick with the character of Kim was nothing to do with Noblezada, who gave a flawless performance.  Kim’s final song has been changed from “The Sacred Bird” which is on the original cast recording.  As she reprises the song “I’d give my life for you” it becomes clear to the audience that this is no empty promise.  I really missed this song and didn’t get quite the same emotional punch from the updated version.  Even now, listening to the original cast recording I can hardly hold back tears.  In the cinema I was left a little..well…blah.

If I was surprised at my unemotional reaction to Kim’s final song, I was far more stunned by my reaction to the song “Movie in my Mind”.  I must have listened to this song a thousand times and never been particuarly effected.  This time, mere moments into the show I was fighting back the tears.  I blame this firmly on Rachelle Ann Go, who played Gigi.  Between her and the other nightclub girls, they took the song to a whole new level.  Their version was fierce and honest and showed the desperation of women stuck in a horrific situation and the pitiful hope that they may one day be rescued.

Alistair Brammer played Chris, the American soldier who rescues Kim.  I really loved his performance.  He gave the part a real sense of youthful optimism.  It was an excellent portrayal of a young man who wants to do good, but ends up in an impossible situation.   Both he and Noblezada completely sell the urgency and the passion in their relationship.  Kim and Chris are two desperate people in a hopeless situation and they cling on to the only thing they can – each other.  It’s beautiful but at the same time completely tragic as you know the relationship is doomed from the start.  We’re in real Romeo and Juliet territory here.

One character I’ve never paid much attention to is John, but Hugh Maynard made damn sure you were paying attention.  His transformation from the party-boy using drugs, drink and women to escape from the reality of the war to the compassionate man who wants to help the people they left behind is truly wonderful.  Now that I’m a mum, it’s much more difficult to hear stories of children in horrible situations.  When Maynard sang Bui Doi, about the forgotten children of the Vietnam war, it was with such emotion that I just wanted to jump through the screen and give him a hug.

As a child, I had a very fairy-tale view of Miss Saigon.  Kim was the princess, Chris the Prince and Ellen was the evil queen who was trying to take him away.  As an adult, I see a world that isn’t all black and white and you realise what a hard character this must be to play.  Tamsin Carroll manages to show how torn Ellen is between wanting to fight for her marriage, while still doing what is right for Kim, Chris and their son.  She is dropped into the middle of a nightmare and tries to help everyone else get through it.

Again, another of my favourite songs has been cut.  A new song “Maybe”, replaces Ellen’s original number “Her or Me”.  I feel like this may have been done to make sure Ellen doesn’t come across as a villain.  “Her or Me” is quite forceful and is less understanding of Kim’s position.  In the newer version, Ellen seems much more sympathetic towards Kim, even talking about stepping aside if Chris and Kim want to be together.  Personally, I feel the original version is more honest, more relatable.  As a married woman, I’m not sure I’d be particularly understanding if someone turned up and tried to tell me they had a prior claim to my husband.  I’d be gearing up for a fight too.

In a cast of this calibre it seems unfair to say one performer stood out, but if I had to pick a favourite from the show I’d have to choose Jon Jon Briones. He played the iconic role of The Engineer and I was mesmerised whenever he was on stage.

He managed to somehow channel just enough of Jonathan Pryce’s original Engineer while still making the character his own. I loved how he bought so much light and shade to the character. Not only did he show his sleazy, manipulative side, but he also gave a portrayal of a man in desperate circumstances willing to do whatever it takes to survive.  In his own way, this Engineer was as vulnerable as Kim and the girls.

The original production of Miss Saigon will obviously always hold a very special place in my heart.  I’ve grown up listening to the music.  However, I think this 2014 production will certainly hold it’s own and will remain a firm favourite.  While some of my favourite moments from the original were missing, it did bring something special all of it’s own and I suppose that is the beauty of theatre revivals.

Speaking of the original cast, one of the highlights of the cinema broadcast was the 25th anniversary finale featuring performances from Lea Salonga (Kim), Simon Bowman (Chris) and Jonathan Pryce (The Engineer) as well as the company from the 1989 production.  For people like me, who’ve known this show from the beginning it was a little magical to see everyone reunited in this way.  Lea Salonga is as beautiful as ever and her voice is still phenomenal.  Seeing her and Simon Bowman performing together was glorious – you could feel the chemistry between them.  Jonathan Pryce was his usual fabulous self.  I loved how he tweaked his original American Dream routine slightly, making funny references to his age.  He was brilliant.

Seeing both casts performing together was a dream.  It was wonderful to see the respect that the actors had for each other. Rachelle Ann Go and Lea Salonga performing “Movie In My Mind” together was a particular highlight for me.

The DVD of the cinema broadcast was released yesterday (Monday 24th Oct).  Although I have put it straight on my Amazon wishlist, I’m not sure I can wait until Christmas to see it again! I can see this being on repeat for a while.  Hopefully when the girls are a little older (it is very raunchy) I can introduce them to the show that has meant so much to me through my life.

Miss Saigon is also on tour next year, so who knows?  Maybe I’ll get to watch it again live one day soon.

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