When Vanessa Belsar first saw Miss Saigon as a child, she knew straight away that the role of ‘Kim’ was going to be a dream role. Cut to a few years later and she is now taking the stage in Lea Salonga’s leading role in BLOC Music Theatre’s revival of the acclaimed musical at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Ballarat.
The protagonist role of Kim is known to be challenging, complex, and full of emotions; but that is what kept the Cameron Mackintosh mega-musical such a legacy and audiences wanting more. So what makes this musical work on stage after more than 25 years? For many, Miss Saigon offers a night of escapism — if we wanted current affairs, we could watch the news. And the story is nothing uplifting. This tale of prostitution and suicide is far from family-friendly. The promise of a dramatic stage production is certainly part of the appeal.
Based on Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon tells the tragic tale of a doomed love story involving a Vietnamese girl who is abandoned by her American lover. The setting of the plot is relocated to 1970s Saigon in the heart of the Vietnam War, and Madame Butterfly’s story of marriage between an American lieutenant and Japanese girl is replaced by a romance between an American GI (Chris, played by Andrew McCalman) and a Vietnamese bar girl named Kim, played by Belsar.
Miss Saigon caused a sensation in 1989 with the helicopter’s rotors whirring in a deafening racket. The noise has become synonymous with the show: even the overture begins with that sound. The embassy rooftop scene, reconstructing a rescue that millions had watched on TV, was so unconventional some theatregoers feared for their lives. It was, they claimed, like being in a war zone.
Other than the beautiful music and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr., it is the brutality, fragility and yearning in the timeless love story that compelled Belsar to the role. “It’s been a huge challenge to find Kim as our lives are worlds apart but fundamentally she has traits and emotions that are so relatable,” she explains. “Fear, love, strength, the ability to hang onto hope to get her through the toughest times, her ability to sacrifice for those she loves. I just draw on what I can to be able to convey these emotions. “
It has taken months of practice and time for the entire team to put together the grit and emotions of Miss Saigon. “We’ve also done a lot of research as a cast on the Vietnam war and I think getting a glimpse into how Kim and all the other characters would’ve lived during that time has been eye opening.” she explains.
While many including the acclaimed Salonga have played the role of Kim, the raw and squalid emotions that are set to occur are fresh for Belsar every night. “The hardest part is going from sky high to rock bottom, back up and then down again,” Belsar explains of the biggest challenge of the stage. “Within act one alone, she’s anxious, shocked, elated, sad, in love, fearing for her life, angry, proud, nervous and often a mixture of these at the same time. So the challenge has really been building the stamina to feel all these emotions all the time.”
Coupled with an award-winning cast and big numbers, Belsar exclaims that there are not many dream roles that she hopes to play after finishing her run as Kim. However Mary Poppins was the very first show she saw on Broadway so the flying nanny is definitely ‘”right up there, along with either of the two female leads in Aida.”
According to Claire Thorpe, a member of the backstage team, the reaction to the show so far (having already played half of it’s run) has been unbelievable. “Audiences have been quite amazing, going so far as to compare our show with the professional Melbourne production from a few years ago. We are so excited to be bringing a show like this to a Ballarat audience, and we are overwhelmed at the community support so far. We ever had a Vietnam veteran speak to us about his experiences during our rehearsal period – it feels fantastic to bring such a truthful show to the stage.”
“This show is real, and we all know it. We can only hope that what the audience gets out of it matches what we put in.”
Miss Saigon is set to run a limited season At Her Majesty’s Theatre Ballarat, through 17th May 2015. Book your tickets at this link.