Monday, August 28, 2023

MISS SAIGON - Opera Australia


Abigail Adriano (Kim)  and Bryce Li (Tam) in the Australian production of "Miss Saigon"

Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg – Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. & Alain Boublil

Directed by Laurence Connor – Australian production directed by Jean-Pierre Van Der Spuy

Musical Staging by Bob Avian – Production designed by Totie Driver & Matt Kinley

Costumes Designed by Andreane Neofitou – Lighting designed by Bruno Poet

Sound designed by Mick Potter – Projections designed by Luke Hall

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House – September August 17th to 13th October.

Official Opening night on August 25th reviewed by BILL STEPHENS.

Seann Miley Moore (The Engineer) - Bryce Li (Tam) - Abigail Adriano (Kim)
in the Australian production of "Miss Saigon"

The timing for this production of Cameron Mackintosh’s new production of Boublil & Schonberg’s “Miss Saigon” could hardly have been better, opening as it does in the very week in which Australia is commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the war in Vietnam.

Although labelled ‘new’ this production was actually premiered in London in 2014. However Mackintosh has charged his director for the Australian production, Jean-Pierre Van der Spuy, to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Australian casting to adapt and evolve this production, even to the point of bringing in Australian designer, Jennifer Irwin, to redesign the Engineer’s costumes.

As a result this spine-tingling production feels as unnervingly prescient today as when this show was first seen in Australia in 1995. From the moment the sounds of helicopter’s hovering overhead rattle the theatre during the overture, and a vulnerable, young Vietnamese girl, dressed in white, is glimpsed  among the teaming bustle of Saigon, the musical sweeps the audience into the horrors of the lives of people trying to survive in a city under seige. 

Abigail Adriano in the Australian production of "Miss Saigon"

Loosely based on the opera “Madam Butterfly”, this sung-through musical tells a similar story focussing on the travails of a seventeen-year-old Vietnamese girl, Kim, who falls in love with an American Marine named Chris. Chris rescues her from the clutches of an opportunistic night-club owner, known as The Engineer, but during the fall of Saigon, the couple are separated and lose touch with each other.

The circumstances under which they’re eventually re-united provide the shattering conclusion to her story.

Seann Miley Moore (The Engineer) in the Australian production of "Miss Saigon"

Utilising state-of-the-art stage effects and technology undreamed of in 1995, this production keeps the   audience on the edge of its seats with a succession of spectacular set-pieces, commencing with the thrilling “The Heat is On”, during which the crowded streets  magically transform into the frenzy and decadence of The Engineer’s night club. 

Brilliant use of darkness, shadows and haze in the production and lighting design constantly confuse the eye so that evocative set-pieces swirl and glide around the stage allowing it to transform seamlessly into gaudy nightclubs, squalid dressing rooms, spectacular military parades, even a romantic candle-lit garden for an impromptu wedding ceremony.

Perhaps the most spectacular transformation of all is achieved with the staging of the fall of Saigon, with its famous helicopter scene, which has never been more convincingly portrayed than in this stunning iteration, the climax of which leaves the audience ducking in their seats as the helicopter departs.

The Fall of Saigon in the Australian production of "Miss Saigon"

But despite the brilliance of the staging, it is the performances of the cast which linger in the mind. Particularly that of newcomer, Abigail Adriano, luminous in the central role as Kim.

Herself only eighteen-years-old, and undertaking her first leading role, Adriano is heart-breaking as the tragic Kim. Her acting is already extraordinarily assured, as is her singing.  Her duets with the young Marine, Chris, sensitively portrayed by Nigel Huckle, provide a series of poignant high points, especially their soaring performance of “The Last Night of the World”.

Abigail Adriano (Kim) and Nigel Huckle (Chris) in the Australian production of "Miss Saigon"

However it’s Adriano's dramatic duets with other characters that best demonstrate her range and accomplishment. The superbly staged duet “I Still Believe” with Ellen (Kerrie Anne Greenland), and the terrifying “You Will Not Touch Him” with Thuy (Laurence Mossman), and especially her heart-rending solo, “I’d Give My Life for You”, which she sings to her little son, Tam, played on opening night by Bryce Li, one of six no-doubt equally adorable children who play this role.

The other stand-out performance is that of Seann Miley Moore as The Engineer. Portrayed as a flamboyant, opportunistic survivor, Moore dazzles with his flair and inventiveness climaxing with his extended, show-stopping performance of “The American Dream”. 


Seann Miley Moore (The Engineer) and the Australian cast in "The American Dream. 

Throughout, the singing of the large cast is superb with memorable highlights provided by Kimberly Hodgson (Gigi) with “The Movie in My Mind, Nick Afoa (John) with “Bui Doi” and Kerrie Anne Greenland (Ellen) with “Maybe”.   

Apart from the masterful staging, dazzling choreography and accomplished performances on offer, there is also the additional pleasure of hearing William David Brohn’s masterful musical arrangements for Schonberg’s magnificent score performed by the superb 25 piece orchestra, conducted by Guy Simpson, who delighted in highlighting details like Craig Driscoll’s wailing clarinet solo introduction to “The Last Night of the World”, while insuring that none of the all-important lyrics were overpowered.

But, although exhilarated by skill and pizazz of the cast and creatives involved in creating Opera Australia’s stunning new production of this musical masterpiece, it was hard to avoid the realisation,  that Australia is already reflecting on the continuing human cost of  involvement in the terrible events, depicted so powerfully in this musical, while searching for ways to prevent threatened re-occurrences.

Whether you will be re-visiting “Miss Saigon” or seeing it for the first time, this is a spectacular, thought-provoking production you should not miss.

(PS - At the risk of being parochial, both understudies for the leading role of Chris, Bill Bouchier and Sam Ward, cut their theatrical teeth in productions by Canberra musical theatre companies, while Opera Australia’s Senior Producer, responsible for this production, Pella Gregory, is the daughter of well-known Canberrans, Gordon and Alpha Gregory OAM).

All images by Daniel Boud with the exception of the "Fall of Saigon" image which is by Matthew Murphy & Johan Persson.

    This review also published in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW. www.arts