Miss Saigon landed on the West End stage for the first time in 1989, playing for over 10 years and clocking up more than 4,000 performances. Across the Atlantic, it’s the thirteenth longest-running show in Broadway history. It’s also been taken around the world, spawning several hugely successful productions. Cameron Mackintosh’s last professional Australian production played Sydney in 2007 and, 10 years later, pro-am company Packemin Productions are staging their own iteration of Miss Saigon at Riverside Theatres.
Said to have been inspired by a magazine photograph that composer and co-book writer Claude-Michel Schönberg came across, Miss Saigon is also a contemporary adaptation of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly. Set during the Vietnam War (and, more specifically, in 1975 shortly before Saigon fell to the North), it tells the story of Kim (Vivien Emsworth), an orphaned 17-year-old who’s forced to flee her home after witnessing the massacre of her family. Homeless and impoverished, she begins working as a prostitute in Saigon bar and nightclub ‘Dreamland’, which is owned and operated by the Engineer (Marcus Rivera). When a group of US marines arrives at ‘Dreamland’, one of the soldiers, Chris (Haydan Hawkins), is introduced to Kim. The two soon fall in love.
It’s not long before the hopes that Chris and Kim have for a life together are dashed. Chris is forced to leave Saigon without notice and, more importantly, without Kim. She has no choice but to remain in Vietnam, living under the now-communist Ho Chi Minh regime, but she continues to believe that Chris will eventually return for her.
It is three years before Chris, now building a life with American wife Ellen (Ashleigh Barlow), learns that Kim is alive and now living in Bangkok. But there’s more to the story: Kim is now the sole carer of her young son, Tam, who is in fact Chris’ child. So, how will he move forward and try to reconcile his former life with Kim with his new life?
Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s tale of ill-fated love may not reach the lofty heights of the pair’s previous stage smash (Les Miserables), but it’s nonetheless a powerful theatrical piece with a compelling story and a score that includes many memorable melodies, traversing a variety of genres from opera, to jazz, to pop.
Since the company’s formation seven years ago, Packemin Productions has taken on a range of musical theatre’s most popular works (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Phantom of the Opera, Mary Poppins, Wicked), with Neil Gooding – and each of the teams he’s assembled – creating large-scale productions with casts that consist of a mixture of high calibre professional and amateur talent. And its 2017 production of Miss Saigon is no exception.
Co-directors Gooding and Ylaria Rodgers have ensured the story is re-told with integrity; that Kim’s gut-wrenching story (and, in fact, the heart-breaking stories of the wider South Vietnamese community, afflicted by the perils of war) is given the treatment it requires. As Kim, Emsworth exudes pathos from her first entrance, when she performs ‘The movie in my mind’, recalling in vivid detail the horror she has escaped. She sings wonderfully and ensures her audience is invested in each twist and turn to Kim’s story, as she desperately searches for a better life for herself and her young child. Hawkins is sincere and decent as Chris – qualities integral to the convincing portrayal of the American soldier, always striving to do the right thing. As his American wife, Ellen, Barlow returns to Packemin (following her excellent performance as Elphaba in last year’s Wicked) and while the character has limited stage time, she makes the most of the opportunity. She’s hugely believable in portraying Ellen – both in her acting and in song – as she realises the intensity of Kim’s feelings for Chris (and begins to grapple with the true stakes).
As Chris’ marine colleague, John, Sapsford is particularly strong in delivering a stirring rendition of second act opener ‘Bui Doi’, a poignant tribute to the American-Asian children abandoned by the soldiers who fathered them. It provides Sapsford an opportunity to showcase his impressive tenor. And David Ouch brings real gravitas to his performance as Thuy, the man to whom Kim was betrothed at a young age and relentless in his pursuit of life with her.
But the standout performer of Packemin’s Miss Saigon is Rivera, returning to the role of the Engineer, which he understudied in Mackintosh’s last Australian production. It’s a tough act to pull off, taking on the role of a sleazy pimp who’s unapologetically exploitative, ruthless and crooked, but simultaneously endearing himself to the audience with a remarkable charm. Rivera does it with ease; it’s clear he’s walked in the character’s shoes before. His is a superb performance.
In terms of production design, Neil Shotter’s set is suitably reminiscent of Totie Driver’s and Matt Kinley’s work on the recently-mounted 25th anniversary production. The 3-D helicopter is certainly the standout piece. Similarly, Audrey Currie’s costumes are appropriate and eye catching, and Sean Clarke’s lighting design is well conceived. When it comes to the music, Peter Hayward leads an orchestra that impresses with its reproduction of Miss Saigon’s sumptuous score.
Packemin Productions’ Miss Saigon is moving, well-crafted and highly entertaining; it’s a faithful staging of Boublil’s and Schönberg’s work, and in the current international political climate, it doesn’t hurt for any of us to be reminded not to close our eyes to those suffering the devastating aftermath of war.
MISS SAIGON (PACKEMIN PRODUCTIONS) – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 12 August 2017
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes (including interval)
On sale now from Riverside Theatres Parramatta: https://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/miss-saigon