With an iconic score, and a singularly powerful book, Shonberg and Boublil’s Miss Saigon is a masterwork. An incredibly difficult show to put to stage, Queensland Musical Theatre’s 2017 season was a simple, but striking staging. Under the direction of Mardi Shon the show delved into the the seedy underbelly of the Vietnam War and the subsequent fall of Saigon. Adding to the clever staging was slick and impressive choreography by Maranne McQuade that helped move the story from bar room to invasion seamlessly.
In addition to the technical demands of the show, the orchestration and vocal score are a beast entirely unto themselves. The orchestra was spectacular, under the baton of Julie Whiting. Providing a beautiful underscore for the often soaring vocals. Of particular note was the powerful men’s chorus in their rendition of Bui-Doi, which rang powerfully in the onset of Act II. While the vocals were overall excellent, there were moments where the harmonies from the chorus were quite out of kilter. As these moments moved in out and out of though, I do wonder if the sound operation, which was not having a good night, may have played a significant part in this.
Undeniably, the star and powerhouse of the show was Danielle Remulta in her role as Kim. Her portrayal was nuanced, tragic, powerful and in the appropriate moments joyous and fun. Remulta’s soaring vocals carried the show from strength to strength and the attention and respect given to the story was evident. The determination portrayed in the final moments of the show, as Kim guided all of the players in the show together and ultimately focused on saving her son, was heart breaking and left many of the audience sobbing quietly into their handkerchiefs. At only 17 years of age, Remulta is definitely one to watch.
Nipping at her heels for show stopping ability was Mike Zarate as The Engineer. The American Dream, ultimately the song of the night, was hilarious, filthy, and delivered like a pro. Zarate’s obvious love of the character shone out every time he got to directly address the audience, or pull focus back to his “engineering”.
Of particular note though, is the smaller moments of realism brought into the character. Fleshing The Engineer out to show the small moments of care, and the bond that Zarate allowed to be built with Tam. Showing a care and protection that eclipsed the simplicity of many portrayals of this character. His onstage work with Tam (played adorably by Matia Godbold – who should also get a nod for the most gorgeous bow in the history of theatre) was the hallmark of a fully developed character.
The character of Ellen Scott is a particularly difficult one, as she gets so little stage time to develop her character or make her case to the audience. Often seen as “the other woman” who ruins a timeless romance. Jessica Ham however, used her brief stage time to give us a passionate, fiery, collected version of the character. Showing the emotional journey and deep love that Ellen and Chris share, Ms. Ham took the stage like a beacon bridging the two worlds that her marriage now occupies. Her stunning vocals in ‘Now That I’ve Seen Her’ brought the audience to pin drop silence.
Tristan Ham brought a moral, driven portrayal of John to the stage becoming a constant balancing point to Chris. Always trying to pull him back in to do the right thing in the face of his adversities. Mr. Ham’s vocals were sadly often marred by the crackle of a fault microphone, that was eventually switched off onstage. That didn’t stop him powering over the top of the orchestra during the duet Please, and again in Ellen and Chris, showing is impressive vocal power and talent. It was his delivery of Bui-Doi though, that brought the house down.
Christopher Scott is a viciously difficult role. Vocally and emotionally demanding. The only way to bring him fully to life is to find the moments of opposition, and act them through into the silences, the unspoken. A show like Miss Saigon has precious few moments of joy, or laughter, in particularly for the ill-fated couple Chris and Kim, but they are there if you look for them. Chris Simpson’s portrayal of Chris, the “man in the middle”, struggled to bring through the fullness of his character.
Simpson delivered in spades on the emotional trauma, and the pain and anxiety that are so important, but could have brought through some more nuance. In particular during moments like the Wedding, and Why God, Why?, we saw some of the softness and laughter but there was room for this to be more fully fleshed out. His lovely tenor voice was sadly plagued with pitch issues through much of the night, again this could be contributed to the sound operation.
Miss Saigon is a very technically demanding production and in many of the larger aspects Queensland Musical Theatre’s production delivered. The infamous helicopter scene was a sight to behold, the floor shook with the power of the sound and the impressive lighting design showcased the chopper to thrilling effect. The lighting was a silent star of the show, designed by Tom Dodds, and in conjunction with the projections used to tell the story it lifted the simple set design magnificently.
The regrettable let down in the technical department was the sound department. There were countless examples of mics going up late, coming down late, crackling, cutting out entirely, and severe balance issues, particularly at the start of the show. These largely settled as the production went on. It was an unfortunate occurrence, but it is worth noting that all companies have these moments. The tech team are often an under appreciated resource and have only a fraction of the time to design and implement their departments into the show. Knowing the quality work that Brendan McLearie and his team do, I am confident that as the season progressed these anomalies would have been ironed out.
One problem with doing a show that has so many big elements that are done so well is that you are then expected to get the small, simple elements right. A small static set design is a great idea, even for a show like this, and many companies could do with following the concept designed by Mardi Shon and Gerard Livsey. There were several moments though that led to some concern in function of the set design. Firstly, when the set was either moved early, or stopped early, and the audience saw Kim and Chris almost thrown from the set as it jerked to a stop.
The stylish wooden slat design, stopped at the height of Kim’s (Remulta’s) knees, meaning if she hadn’t caught herself, she would have pitched straight off it onto the floor, and if the cast are to be on top of a moving set, it is well worth the extra hassle to run a safety wire. Additionally, the staircase had a lot of bounce to it, especially when Simpson ran up it. It bounced a lot and shook the entire set piece worryingly. But these are simple fixes and overall the set design and movement worked wonderfully to lift the stylised production.
Honourable mentions should also be given out to Rex Cho as Thuy, who in his first ever production, gave a remarkable performance, and has a rich and wonderful tone to his voice. Additionally, Archie Reyes, who delighted as the over the top Bangkok nightclub owner. Also proving the adage that there are no such thing as small parts Rowena Orcullo Ryan, Erika Goita, and Maria Newman, as Mimi, Yvette, and Yvonne respectively should be well credited for the attention to detail they gave into the character journeys and relationships in all of the Dream Land scenes. It added a richness to the scenes that would have been sorely missed.
Queensland Musical Theatre put up a very strong showing with their production of Miss Saigon, and it is an excellent example of the capacity that community musical theatre has risen to over recent years. It was also very encouraging to see that the show I attended was approaching capacity seating, proving that the community theatre scene in Brisbane is alive and thriving.