What do want from a musical… the music? If so, Cameron Mackintosh’s hotly anticipated revival of “Miss Saigon” is home free. In the title role, Eva Noblezada makes an astonishing stage debut. At 18, she has poise, power and a superb voice throughout a seriously wide vocal range. Backed by a cracking 16-piece band and Mick Potter’s expert sound design, she gives the evening true passion. Everyone else busts a gut but their combined efforts look, well, effortful. Crowded with action and technical cues, Laurence Connor’s huge, strenuous production feels staged rather than directed.
Even those who never saw the original production remember the helicopter, made legendary by the logo, which returns for this revamp. But impressive though the helicopter appearance was (and is again), there has always been a whole lot more to “Miss Saigon” than spectacle.
For starters, many, this reviewer included, would argue that Boublil and Schonberg’s score (and, in particular, the imaginative orchestrations) is more ambitious and richer than their earlier “Les Miserables.” And, faced with the Madam-Butterfly-meets-Vietnam-heartbreak story, this production team is very clearly attempting to wring every last drop of emotion from it. But pushing performance levels to the max and forcing everyone to emote is not the ideal way to induce a level of deep emotion in the audience.
This always was a show that refused to deal in doubt. For both better and worse it’s a story told in broad brushstrokes in which everyone leaps to emotional conclusions at the earliest opportunity. Noblezada manages to be quietly resolute, pained and defiant, but she alone appears to value the idea of restraint. Everyone else is displaying their feelings so broadly and loudly that the musical and dramatic material is never allowed room to breathe. Audiences are consigned merely to watch and applaud how hard everyone in the 34-strong cast is working, rather than being let in to the drama.
That’s at its clearest in the second act opener where former G.I. John shows a film of the children fathered in Vietnam to whom America owes responsibility. The film always was the show’s most difficult taste-call and here it feels very peculiar to have Hugh Maynard’s vocal pyrotechnics, impressive though they are, leading the audience to whoop and cheer a song about a nation’s collective guilt.
The same encouragement of overt display is there in Alistair Brammer’s exaggerated performance as Chris, the American who, in the dying days of the U.S. occupation, falls headlong for virginal Kim who is put before him by John and the manipulative Engineer (Jon Jon Briones in the role created by Jonathan Pryce). Brammer has a convincing soldier’s physique and a big voice, but replaces characterization with vibrato. Seeming not to know how to handle him, Connor directs him to spend most of his stage time either in inexpressive but devouring kissing or clutching furniture in torment.
No one is going to complain that they cannot see where the £4.5 million ($7.6 million) budget — high for London, where costs are generally about a third of those on Broadway — has gone. It’s a huge stage but, peculiarly, the design, for the most part, feels cramped. There’s a case for that in the famous opening sequence, “The Heat Is On”, that creates the crowded activity of the sleazy side of Saigon in 1975, but too many of the scenes that follow also look cluttered. Most disappointingly of all is Bruno Poet’s overly busy lighting plot. He achieves impressive effects along the way — for much of the time it’s closer to a rock concert with split beams cutting through semi-permanent haze — but doesn’t do enough of the controlling narrative work the production craves.
The look of the show is mostly naturalistic, a conscious turn away from Nicholas Hytner and John Napier’s original conception. But their rigorous, epic control of the space gave the drama the clarity and grandeur this production now only really achieves in the biggest set-pieces, notably the helicopter arrival/leaving of Saigon and, especially, “The American Dream.” A giant Statue of Liberty rises up against the silver slash curtain behind lines of glittering dancers, and a car noses into view for Briones’ wonderfully weaselly Engineer to clamber aboard. The number is indebted to “One” from “A Chorus Line” (on which choreographer Bob Avian also worked), but who cares when it works as well as this?
Ideally structured sequences like that make you appreciate the sheer scale of Mackintosh’s production, which is in a different league from most other tuners. The combination of a record-breaking advance, positive (though not rave) local reviews and serious Twitter buzz should ensure both a very healthy run and a likely Broadway transfer. But beneath the magnitude of this as event-theatre, there’s a niggling feeling that Noblezada’s thrilling central performance deserved a less frenetic, more focused production.