Bowing in Melbourne ahead of a 15-month Australian tour, the much-vaunted, “all-new” version of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s blockbusting East-meets-West popera, “Miss Saigon,” wowed opening-night auds in its Aussie premiere, prompting a rowdy standing ovation. Its strong cast, striking production values, often stirring singing, vibrant dance design and fast-paced melodramatics all fuel the overall impact of this Madam Butterfly-in-Nam, which holds up as a proven performer piece.
Producer Cameron Mackintosh is quoted as welcoming the idea of a “more flexible and easily tourable” concept for this powerful, sung-through epic. His technical team has responded with a leaner, meaner, more realist rendering, which still scores high in visual and vocal effect.
Director Laurence Connor’s rescaled treatment is ultra-cinematic, with boldly lit vistas right out of “Apocalypse Now” and “The Deer Hunter” and suddenly shifting scene-changes that unfold like the swiftest filmic dissolves and wipes. Designer Adrian Vaux’s naturalistic stage set-ups and David Hersey’s burnished amber, chiaroscuro lighting are moodily utilized to provide grit and atmosphere.
Matching the vivid tones of the stage imagery is a sturdy ensemble of passionately engaged performers. A veteran in the role on international stages, Leo Tavarro Valdez’s well-seasoned portrait of the Engineer (owing as much to Brecht as to the emcee in “Cabaret”) is a marvelously amoral manipulator. He virtually pimps the innocent heroine, 17-year-old Vietnam peasant girl Kim (Laurie Cadevida), on her spiraling way from passion to heartbreak in (and wrenched out from) the substantial arms of American G.I. Chris (David Harris).
The pairing of lovely-looking, soaring soprano Cadevida and handsome, clarion-voiced Harris works wonders with the sometimes repetitive score.
Meanwhile Chris’ African-American sidekick John (an impressively buffed Juan Jackson) makes for an effective tough-guy-turned-tender (even if his upper register in the otherwise rousing “Bui Doi” number tends to cloud a tad). And Sophie Katinis does her brave best with the fairly thankless role of Chris’ American wife.
The show’s big moments do not disappoint. “The Morning of the Dragon” pulsates with massed martial force and the stridently flaming colors of Mao-cum-Ho agit prop. By way of contrast, the Engineer’s archly cynical ode to U.S. commercialism, “The American Dream,” drives its crude ironies home, hard and fast as toe-tapped out by an exuberant Valdez and a lineup of Harlow-Monroe and Kelly-Astaire impersonators.
But ultimately it would seem a totally successful “Miss Saigon” is judged by how it negotiates the legendary helicopter scene, which climaxes the “Fall of Saigon — 1975” set piece toward the middle of act two. Ingeniously aided by super-imposed digital effects, the landing and leaving of the aircraft is utterly convincing and thrillingly staged, a coup de theatre that meshes thundering sounds to a spectacular image.
The show opened for the first time around in Australia in 1995, playing for 15 months to a total audience of 775,000 at Sydney’s Capitol Theater. But the premiere production was too massive to travel interstate. As this canny remount sets off on the touring circuit, impresario Mackintosh appears to have a super-sized hit on his hands.