Miss Saigon, Lyric Theatre at Star City from September 20; ph: Ticketmaster 1300 796 330 or www.ticketmaster.com.au
Twelve years have passed since Cameron Mackintosh's original Sydney production of Miss Saigon opened at the Capitol Theatre and there's been a lot of war under the bridge since then. Technology has also gone ahead and this has meant significant changes for the show in lighting, sound and staging. It is now as smooth-running, sophisticated and simplified as the premiere production was more traditional and prone to mechanical hiccups. For instance, the addition of a large overhead screen - used sparingly - has added to the sense of contemporaneity and theatricality, while a wicked animation sequence by Gerald Scarfe enhances an already scorching American Dream scene. And the fabled "chopper" scene - when the helicopter lifts off from the roof of the US embassy- is, if possible, even more appalling now as a huge, spectral on-screen image.
Possibly the most striking aspect of this new production is that, after 24 hours mulling it over, it remains one of the more affecting, memorable, spectacular and politically resonant nights in the theatre for some time. And you can't often say that about a musical.
Miss Saigon is basically Madama Butterfly reinvented for the Vietnam War and it is a perfect fit. Cho Cho San is now Vietnamese bar girl Kim and Pinkerton is GI Chris; and instead of the strings being pulled by a finagling Bonze, there is now a tackily conniving Engineer. Rather than being seen through the neutralising rosy glow of far off Nagasaki in the 1890s, however, Kim and Chris are undeniably of the 20th (and 21st) century. They are caught up in the last weeks of the US occupation of Saigon as tawdry sex and rock'n'roll momentarily distract the young American soldiers from the horror into which they have been pitched. It is as naught, nevertheless, compared with the horror of being a young woman in a war zone. Any war zone.
As played by Jennifer Trijo (the "alternate" Kim, otherwise Laurie Cadevida who was ill on opening night) the young girl from the countryside symbolises all the innocents who have ever been caught up and destroyed by war. Almost a schoolgirl as the show opens, she grows in stature through the evening until the inevitable yet heart wrenching finale. David Harris, too, is a performer of stature as the disheartened Chris who reluctantly finds something lasting in their brief encounter. Leo Tavarro Valdez reprises his 1996 role of The Engineer and his energy and sass are pivotal to the production. Well known in Sydney to Opera Australia audiences, Juan Jackson plays Chris's friend John as the archetypal sexy, alpha-male GI - who also happens to have a glorious voice; he is serious pin-up material. Also notable is RJ Rosales as Thuy - the young man whose rise through the ranks of the new order is inexorable and fated.
The setting (Adrian Vaux) is at once imaginative and economical. The red paper lanterns, bamboo blinds and rickety wooden stairs of old Saigon's back streets are overshadowed by the flashing neon signs of nightclubs, bars, brothels and the other necessaries of western leisure. Elements are moved in and out and up and down stage to become Kim's hovel, a bar and finally, the perimeter fence of the US embassy. Ingenious lighting (David Hersey, Australian associate: Richard Pacholski) adds extra layers of atmosphere and meaning and is spectacularly effective. The costumes (Andreane Neofitou original design, Australian associate: Suzy Strout) are authentic enough to almost smell from the auditorium - with sweat, fear and cheap perfume prevailing. Bob Avian was responsible for the original staging and the show is now directed, with verve and a sure eye, by Laurence Connor with terrific choreography - small group and major chorus line ensembles - by Geoffrey Garratt.
The only weakness of the show is the element I didn't much admire first time around. The music is still the mainly undistinguished sub-operatic French balladeering which has not grown in charm in more than a decade. However, it is clearly not seen as a weakness by the millions who adore the work of Claude Michel Schonberg (and Alain Boublil) whether in Miss Saigon or Les Miserables, which is their other monster worldwide hit. That said, Kim and Chris's love song "Sun and Moon" is charming and affecting as sung by the duo; "Bui Doi" - by John and the men of the company - is now made pointed and stirring through Juan Jackson's powerful delivery beneath the projected images of the (real) abandoned Vietnamese children of American GIs. And Engineer and Co's acid-dipped "The American Dream" is visually extended and is now reminiscent in tone and style to Bernstein's West Side Story classic "America" - and similarly effective.
Miss Saigon is in Sydney for just ten weeks and deserves queues around the block. This is for a number of reasons, including theatrical excellence as described above, and also because of changes in Australia since it was last seen here in the 1990s. As a consequence its relevance and poignancy cannot be overstated. Not only are we embroiled in yet another war (although it's trickier to imagine a bar and brothel district thriving in Baghdad, I imagine the armies have taken their recreational tools and toys with them this time), but also because we are now aware as never before of the cruelty of human trafficking and the thriving global business in young female flesh. At this juncture in our history, therefore, Miss Saigon has a lot to say as well as being a splendid entertainment. Don't miss out.