Every Thought I Had While Watching 'Miss Saigon'
Whether you're a seasoned theatre-enjoyer or a first-timer, Miss Saigon is well worth your butt on the seat.
December 01, 2023
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I'm a late convert to live theatre. For a combination of socioeconomic and cultural factors, the theatre always seemed to me like something other people did. I grew up thinking it was for fancy people. Rich people. Not people like me. Thankfully, life has its twists and turns, and, as an adult, I can now say I love the theatre — and I'm making up for lost time.
There's one musical I've had my eyes on for a while. In 1989, a show hit the stage that would become a phenomenon in the theatre world. Miss Saigon, the brainchild of the creators of Les Misérables, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, is a saga of love, loss and resilience set against the grim backdrop of the Vietnam War.
The story sweeps us into the life of Kim, a young Vietnamese woman (well, 'woman' — she's 17 at curtain open) whose life is upended by war. She finds herself working in a brothel owned and led by a charismatic being known only as 'The Engineer'. It's here she meets Chris, an American soldier, and it's here where they fall in love, only to be torn apart by the tumultuous fall of Saigon.
Even though the story is well known, I still feel like it's best not to give away the rest.
And by well known, I mean well known. Since its debut, Miss Saigon has traversed the globe, mesmerising audiences in 32 countries and 373 cities, performed in 15 languages, and racked up over 70 theatre awards. From its record-breaking premiere in London to its storied runs on Broadway and everything in between, the show has continually evolved with the times in which it is presented.
The latest Australian production, which just wrapped a stunning run at the Sydney Opera House, is a testament to the show's enduring appeal. Directed by Jean Pierre van Der Spuy, with musical staging by the late great Bob Avian, and additional choreography by Richard Jones, the production is wild. The set design by Matt Kinley and Totie Driver — inspired by Adrian Vaux's original concept — is mesmerising.
And then there's the music. A blend of powerful orchestration and Eastern percussion that sonically transports you straight to 70s Saigon. In fact, Miss Saigon uses the widest range of far Eastern percussion instruments of any Western musical with featured instruments including baos (Chinese opera gongs), hyoshi-gi (Japanese kabuki clappers), chū-daiko (Japanese taiko drums), kyeezee (Burmese temple bells) and Thai ching cymbals.
When I took my seat at Melbourne's Her Majesty's Theatre, I expected a good show — there must be a reason the narrative is still going strong all these decades later. What I didn't anticipate was the sheer physicality and emotion that exuded from every character. Every single person who stepped on that stage killed it.
Wild to think that as much as it's a magic night for the audience, for the cast, it's just another day of showbiz — the impressive jumps and flips and gut-wrenching cries and passionate make-outs will be repeated the following day, and the next day, and the next day. Isn't that insane to think about? How some humans can just reproduce magic, whenever they want!? And we, the ones in the crowd, get to bask in the marvel of it all.
Abigail Adriano, as Kim, was a force of nature. The way she commanded the stage was so incredible to witness, especially for someone so young (19!). Her voice is a real joy to hear live; it boggles the mind that people can be so talented. She plays every arc of Kim so convincingly, from shy and awkward at the beginning to every complicated spectrum of human emotion possible as her story evolves. When things get tragic, her performance becomes even more believable. Her pain is almost palpable, with a certain scene leaving the audience dead quiet in awe.
Starring alongside Abigail are Nigel Huckle and Nick Afoa, playing American soldier Chris and his best friend John respectively. The pair brought their characters' internal battles and moral dilemmas to life. But it's Seann Miley Moore as The Engineer who really stole the show. What an absolute raging inferno of charisma and talent. And what an honour it was to witness. Every scene involving Seann became a battle of what to focus on, because you so badly wanted to see what was going on in the crowded background scenes but there was no way you were taking your eyes off Seann.
Speaking of background. The show had so many layers, it's something you could easily see multiple times and keep taking something new away. The background actors gave incredible performances, and the choreography was so impressive to witness — the stage was full of B and C and D plots flashing in and out of our periphery while the main plot took the limelight, making it so hard to pay attention (in the best possible way) because everywhere you looked you saw magic.
The technical aspects of the show also blew me away. The set pieces, including a giant Ho Chi Minh head and Statue of Liberty face, were imposing and pretty damn cool. But the real star was the helicopter scene. I've now learned it's famous as a showcase of onstage practical effects, but at the time it genuinely surprised me and it was so realistically executed that you could almost feel the wind from its blades.
And here's something that blew my mind post-show — the music is performed live by a full orchestra tucked away beneath the stage. So hidden were they that I didn't even realise until the show was over and my companion pointed it out to me.
My page space is running out, even though I could keep ranting and raving, so I'll leave you with this. Miss Saigon isn't just a musical, it's a journey that encapsulates the human experience in times of conflict, reminding us that humans can find beauty in even the worst circumstances.
Whether you're a seasoned theatre-enjoyer or a first-timer, Miss Saigon is well worth your butt on the seat. You'll see an excellent show and also witness a narrative that has now carved its way into theatrical history. Which I think is pretty damn cool.
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