Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg & Richard Maltby Junior
Palace Theatre, Manchester
More than fifteen years after Boublil and Schönberg's follow-up to their phenomenally successful Les Misérables landed - by helicopter - in the West End, the production has been completely revamped to a scale more suited to touring large-scale venues. The new version has a brand new design from Adrian Vaux and new direction from Laurence Connor and Mitchell Lemsky.
Miss Saigon transplants the story of Madame Butterfly to Vietnam in the mid-1970s. Two US soldiers, Chris and John, are relaxing in a seedy bar in Saigon. John 'buys' Chris a night with Kim, a new employee in the bar who recently arrived in Saigon after her village was destroyed in the war. Chris falls for Kim, but then all hell breaks loose and the US troops have to pull out of Saigon in a hurry, splitting the new lovers up. Three years later, Chris has made a new life for himself in America, but Kim is still waiting for him to return to her, with inevitably tragic consequences.
Rather than pruning the original production and sending it on the road with a touring cast, Cameron Mackintosh has assembled a top quality new cast and production team to create a fresh, new production suitable for touring. Some of the famous elements of the original production, such as the helicopter and the Cadillac, have gone, to be replaced by simpler effects that work at least as well.
There are no weaknesses in the cast, but Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer threatens to steal the show. He has played the part on and off around the world for ten years, and even appears in the chorus on the 1990 original cast recording, but his performance still seems fresh with lots of nice little subtle touches. Chris and Kim are played by Ramin Karimloo and Ima Castro, who are both excellent with strong singing voices. John Partridge is also very good as Chris's friend John, although his version of 'Bui Doi' is a bit too gospelly for me; a simpler rendition can be more effective.
The new set design looks nice and works very well in the production. The fall of Saigon scene is particularly impressive, as sections of fencing and crowds of people are carefully choreographed to be in different positions each time they are lit. The helicopter lands on stage courtesy of a projection screen and surround sound effects that travel around the audience, but this is actually done very well. The screen is also used during the 'American Dream' number to show a wonderful animated film by the great caricaturist Gerald Scarfe, which fits perfectly with the seedy interpretation of American capitalism sung about by the Engineer.
Apart from the surround effects, the general sound is a bit thin and lacking in the higher and lower frequencies - at least in the rear stalls - which sometimes reduces intelligibility, especially in crowd scenes. This is not helped by some sparse arrangements and a sound balance in which the vocals sometimes overwhelm the music completely.
This is a slick, top quality production of one of the largest musicals of the last twenty years. The show has a plot that meanders a bit at times and sometimes jumps about in time without much explanation, but it draws the audience into its intense emotion, while still allowing plenty of light relief. The songs are catchy and will be going through your head for days, with some very nice English lyrics from Richard Maltby Jnr. The Palace is providing an entertaining and often moving night at the theatre for this Christmas.
"Miss Saigon" runs until 7th January 2006
Reviewer: David Chadderton