Saturday, July 20, 2019

Miss Saigon – talented singing and a huge youth cast bring this heartbreaking story to life (Grand Opera House until Sunday 21 July)

The Grand Opera House Trust’s summer youth production for its seniors drops the audience into the middle of the Miss Saigon beauty contest in a seedy brothel in the country’s most populous city. The impresario – known only as The Engineer – profits from the US Marines who hire out his girls. A young rural girl, Kim, arrives and her innocence attracts a sergeant called Chris. But as you’d expect, love does not run smooth in this Schönberg/Boublil musical which uses flashbacks after the interval to fill in some gaps as the show hurtles towards its emotional ending.

Musicals have the potential to transport you to a different place in a different time, to jump into the middle of a story and make you believe that the characters are real for two or more hours. The production – cast, songs, and emotion – has to pull you in to care for the characters and the dilemmas they face. All this, despite the novel situations and the unnatural characteristic of minimal dialogue and maximum bursting into song. And each lead performer needs to know how to stand out and grab the limelight and catch the audience’s attention among large casts and busy sets.

With two pairs of leads alternating performances, Friday evening’s show featured the talented Niamh McAuley as Kim and Nathan Johnston as Chris. McAuley’s emotional range stood out from the first scene as she gingerly walked across the floor of the Miss Saigon contest, showing off a sense of vulnerability that seemed to melt away so naturally as her character began to take back control. While the chemistry between the pair of lovers took a while to warm up, there was a growing feeling of tenderness between them, and Johnston nailed his final scene with a passionate wail as the curtain came down.

The vocal star of the show tonight was Louis Fitzpatrick (playing Chris’ military colleague John) with a warm baritone voice that resonated around the auditorium, passing over any amplification issues that affected some of the less powerful voices. (The band tending to drown out the vocals in the first act.)

Harry Blaney’s Thuy was sinister and threatening, while his alter-ego in The Engineer’s far-fetched (and perhaps over-staged) The American Dream was carried off to a tee.

The school edition of Miss Saigon still has to deal with forced prostitution and death. Conor O’Brien’s easy charm and chutzpah lessened the sleaziness of The Engineer. McAuley’s voice comfortably wrapped around her key songs, particularly Last Night of the World, Room 317 (her confrontation with the impressive Lára Mulgrew playing Ellen) and The Movie in My Mind (an early two-hander with the talented Holly Topping playing the Gigi).

Tony Finnegan’s direction delivered some nice moments such as the initial reveal of the youngest cast member (who quite rightly proceeded to steal every scene) and Kim’s misdirection in the leadup to the flashback.

With upwards of forty-five on stage during some of the ensemble numbers, even the Grand Opera House deep stage can begin to look crowded. The iconic helicopter scene with its well-executed lighting effect was somewhat eclipsed by the outpouring of emotion by the frenzied crowd behind the wire fence the Fast scene changes with the elaborate folding set kept the show moving, as did Wilson Shields’ orchestra in the pit.

All kinds of questions nagged me from minutes after the curtain rose right through until Miss Saigon’s finale number: the appropriateness of the relationship between Sergeant Chris and young Kim; the accuracy of the story’s portrayal of the different sides to this story (the women, the US marines the Vietnamese soldiers and the Viet Cong); the level of sexualisation in parts of the story, the age of the senior school cast, and the varying levels of comfort as they engaged with the characters.

Miss Saigon doesn’t land in local theatres very often, and this ambitious and technically complex retelling of Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly by the team behind Les Misérables, and performed after just three weeks of rehearsals is worth a visit to the Grand Opera House before the run finishes on Sunday 21 July. The summer youth production by the Opera House Trust’s junior cast will be Bugsy Malone from Thursday 1 to Saturday 3 August.

No comments: