‘Miss Saigon’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by May 18, 2017

‘Miss Saigon’ is a multi-award winning love story. An audacious pop opera from the writers that brought us ‘Les Misérables’, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Alain Boublil. This is a contemporary adaptation of Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ by Richard Maltby, Jr. has been relocated Saigon in the 1970s during the Vietnam War. The wonderful story retains all the emotion and tragedy of the original. This musical phenomenon has been seen in over 300 cities.

Premiering at the Theatre Royal, London in 1989, and the production closed 10 years and four thousand performances later. One of WA’s leading theatre groups, the Stray Cats Theatre Company in conjunction with the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre, proudly presents this two and a half hour brutal and uncompromising production to you.

This version of the 2011 revival can be seen in the main theatre at the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre in Ormsby Terrace, Mandurah each evening at 7.30 until Saturday 20th May. There are two matinées, each at 2.00 pm on Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st. A warning, the show has many ADULT themes.

I can recommend the Stagedoor Restaurant, situated in the theatre building, for quality and value.

 

As you enter the theatre, the cast are in ‘a freeze’, a moment frozen in time. This moment is Viet Nam at its worst, people are fleeing, and the troops are wielding their guns. The cast are placed in the aisles, on the stage apron and centre stage. A selection of newsreel clips (Alan White) reminds us of the panic and tragic events.

        It is April 1975 and almost the end of the Vietnam War. In ‘Dreamland’, a Saigon brothel owned by a French-Vietnamese wheeler-dealer – ‘the Engineer’ (Robert Sardual) – a seventeen-year-old orphaned girl, Kim, (Andrea Lim – Madame Butterfly in the original opera) is guilelessly starting work as bar attendant.

       In the club, the experienced girls are already entertaining the U.S. Marines. The ‘Miss Saigon’ beauty contest finishes, and the winner is about to be raffled to a serviceman. A hardened stripper, Gigi Van Tranh (Tara Lynette Elliott), who is chosen as ‘Miss Saigon’ is seeking a better life, pleading with the soldier who won the raffle to take her back to America. Marine John Thomas (Paul Spencer) suggests to his G.I. friend, Sergeant Chris Scott (Tate Bennett), who will be returning to America soon, that he samples one of the prostitutes. Kim’s innocence strikes Chris, but being a virgin, she is hesitant and fearful. John pays for their room. Chris adores Kim. When she awakes, he offers a gift of money, but Kim refuses. Chris encourages her to leave the nightclub, but Tran Van Dinh – the Engineer – thinks that Chris did not fancy Kim.

       Chris takes a few days off to be with Kim, and then offers to take her back to America. Chris’s friend, John, warns him that the Viet Cong are about to conquer Saigon. Chris trades for Kim, with the Fagan-like Engineer, who plays dirty. Chris and Kim are married. At the reception, Gigi admits that Kim should have been crowned Miss Saigon.

       As a child, in a prearranged marriage, Kim was promised to her cousin Thuy (John Mondelo), who is now an official in the Vietnamese Communist party. Thuy arrives to claim Kim, and is horrified to find her with a Westerner. Thuy draws his gun, but Kim insists that because her parents are dead, their marriage arrangements are now quashed. Thuy is furious, but can only watch as Chris promises to take Kim to America.

      Three years later, it is 1978 in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. As a street carnival (a spectacular scene) is celebrating the reunification of Vietnam. Cousin Thuy, who is now a commissar in the Government, has his troops search for the shady pimp, ‘Engineer’. The Engineer is found working in the rice fields. He is commanded to find Kim.

       When Kim refuses Thuy’s new offer of marriage, the Commissar’s men begin to tie up Kim and the Engineer. When Kim shows Thuy her three-year-old son, Tam (Noah Vernie) fathered by Chris, Thuy calls her a traitor and tries to kill Tam. Kim kills Thuy first. Aided by the Engineer, who still has hopes of reaching America, as the boy’s ‘uncle’, the Engineer takes them to Bangkok, where the three attempt to board a refugees’ ship.

        At the end of the war, Kim and Chris became separated. Kim lives in a humpy in a slum, but is ever hopeful that Chris will find her. However, she is unaware that in the meanwhile, Chris is now the USA with his new American wife, Ellen (Lisa Taylor). In a nightmare, Chris shouts Kim’s name and Ellen suspects the truth.

In Atlanta, Georgia, John now works for Bui-Doi (‘tr bi đi’ is Vietnamese for ‘street children’) to help the children ‘born in Hell and living in strife’.

        What will happen to Chris, Ellen, and Kim? How can the three resolve two such strong love affairs?

 

Two WAAPA students, Lauren Cheok is Kim’s understudy, and Hayden Tognela understudies all of the male actors.

The other speaking parts are played by: – Mariah Gonzalez, Emily Lambert, Oliver Clare, Nicholas Gaynor, Mathew Lister, Angus Young and Patrick Dawes.

The ensemble – who worked extremely hard comprised:- Ashleigh Riley, Sonja Scott, Suzie Wiseman, Danielle Taylor, Shevonne Scudamore, Kristie Gray, Rhiannon Garnham, Abby Jennings, Ebony Eastman, Ryan White, Robert Kett, Gemma Lever, Asha Perry, Danica James, Meaghan Hill, Aleesha Triglia, Kara Pursell, Lauren Mijatovic, Teaghan Lowry, Ella Thompson, Caitlin Wainwright, Stephanie Wainwright, Aidan Thomas, Declan O’Brien, Lachlan McNeil, Daniel Tench, Sam Watts, Tracy Bolton, Zoe Hubbard, Tannah Pridmore, Samantha Dunford, Charlotte Baker, Charlotte Roberts, Imogen Cole and Lizz Wood.

Director Karen Francis must be fearless or mad. She chooses massive challenges and in her own understated way, goes about directing the colossal casts of her shows in a cool and effortless way. She also guides on various aspects of design and teching. The calm is on the outside, I am sure there is hell inside her. Karen never fails to start and finish each Act with an explosion of action. This show’s opening has the brothel’s 40 girls, clad in exotic underwear and a dozen American servicemen having a well-earned night off.

The demands for this complex show is obviously finding leads of the required ethnicity, first class singers, energetic dancers, good movers, girls happy to thrust and wear risqué costumes, a hint of accent (American or Vietnamese), capable of acting powerful drama whilst still showing the tortured love and passion of the tale. Karen has chosen well, every actor and actress seemed at home with his or her part and performed well. The leads were exceptional.

There is a major scene of a Ho Chi Minh parade, overlooked by a massive portrait of the leader. With a huge cast performing several dance routines, waving flags, a dance of ‘the spirits of the dead’, a twirling ribbon dance, dancing peasants wearing coolie hats, and even topped off with a trishaw (cycle rickshaw made by Wayne Gale and Bronwyn White).

There are scenes of human struggle, with dozens fighting and clawing to get past the barbed wire fences to reach the boats to freedom beyond. Convincingly and movingly depicted.

In a stunning dream sequence, where Engineer imagines he has a new luxury Night Club in America, the Club’s male dancers wore top hats and tails, whilst the girls had beautiful white silk bodices, blonde wigs and a big red bow tie. The scene was breath-taking and oozed opulence, even before the high kicking routine!! Almost every actor had several well styled and constructed costumes. The amount of thought and work in every costume from Costume Designers Linda Lowry, Kerry Tarbuck, Joyce Lim and Deb O’Halloran was dazzling. The Costume Assistants with the sore fingers (?) were Cathy Wainwright, Catherine O’Brien and Diane Clare.

I am sure that Stage Manager, Anita Telkcamp with a cast of several dozen to supervise, and hundreds of props was grateful to have an administrator, Ashleigh Riley, and her deputy stage manager Taiya Rana. The fast moving and silent stage crew, Kinya Jasmin, Karen Francis, Constance Villemot-Haynes, Braeden Glen-Geuer, and Zoe Sutton had several massive pieces to move.

The Mandurah Theatre’s lighting and sound teams were excellent; they had a natural feel for the show and the mood that was desired for each scene.

The general design was by Bronwyn White, assisted by Bec Inwood and Jon Lambert. Karen Francis’s sets were solidly constructed by Peter Francis and Duncan Anderson. Whether it was a sleazy brothel or an upmarket American luxury nightclub, a shanty home or a view of an American skyline, they captured it all.

Mention ‘Miss Saigon’ and the helicopter scene is invariably mentioned. With this being a ‘Community’ project, funded on a very limited budget (mainly from the director’s pocket) and a huge amount of supporters’ goodwill, I expected the helicopter to be missing. How wrong can one be? Karen had a flying car in ‘Mary Poppins’, so why not an amazingly realistic, moving troop helicopter – remarkable work by David Hartley.

The choreography and movement arranged by Lisa Taylor and her assistant Danielle Taylor, was lively, exciting, raunchy, sophisticated, and dramatic. Brilliant work. With large crowd scenes, it is easy to have groups of people simply standing as though they are cardboard cut-outs. However, with Lisa’s routines, every individual – even when there might be 50 on the stage – is occupied and moving with relevance to the storyline. The stage is crammed with excitement and action, making the show move at a cracking pace. Every scene was packed with interest. No matter how complex the dance routines, the actors were perfectly rehearsed and completely in harmony. Skilled work.

The Musical Director was David Hicks who played keyboard, allowing Liam House to conduct the perfectly balanced, 16-piece Saigon Orchestra. Also on keyboards were Evan Solloway, Sarah Gare, and Bronwen Herholdt. On Reed were Timothy Walker, David Lawrence, Lindsay Gould, and Merina Chen. The Horn section has Aishah Chadwick-Stumpf, Finlay Cooper, Jack Sirett, and Ned Holland. On Cello was Darsha Kumar, and on Percussion Mark Beasy.

The Pit Singers, Matthew Walford, David Major, Erik Bunch, Georgia McGivern, Kim Moore, and Megan Burne were magnificent, giving extra power, depth, and emotion when required. There were 36 brief, storytelling songs in the show.

Along with director Karen Francis, vocal supervisor Kristie Gray has chosen a cast that could really sing. Often in the ‘mass’ numbers, the female singers give it their all, but most times the men put the basic effort into their pieces; here the Alberta fundraisers created a tremendous male voice choir, beautifully in tune and delivered with strength and feeling.

Robert Sardual – the Engineer – has been out of mainstream singing and acting for several years, but has come back with an explosion. He is a natural, having the movement, dance talent, expressions, and a powerful voice, what a find.

Andrea Lim – Kim – has the most beautiful voice. Even when singing at full volume, every note is clear and at perfect pitch. Her acting exceptional.

Tate Bennett – Chris – has acted for years, but this was his first singing challenge. A great voice and he gave the part his all.

John Mondelo – Thuy – has been trained in Classical Voice at UWA and WAAPA, need I say more?

Lisa Taylor – Ellen – after playing Glinda in Stray Cats Theatre Company ‘Wicked!’ enchants us again with her voice, but has also excelled here as choreographer.

Tara Lynette Elliott – Gigi – although trained as a ballerina and acrobat, displays her beautiful voice.

Little 3-yrs. old Tam, portrayed by Noah Vernie was like putty in the hands of the director and cast, I have never seen a youngster be so easily directed. Well done Noah.

Someone please give Karen a long overdue award – her work is ALWAYS first class, adventurous, and memorable.

It is only three months until Stray Cats stage their next production, ‘Les Misérables’, a pace of creation that should embarrass some other community theatre groups.

Mandurah is not as far as you think. It is an hour in the car, or several dollars on the train with a free bus from the station to the theatre door. Grab a box of tissues and head down south.

If necessary, sell your children, but do not miss this ‘Production of the Year’ (?). Outstanding.