Monday 19 February 2018

Enchanted by the tragic beauty of Miss Saigon

Ahead of its Dublin run, Andrea Smith was enthralled and heartbroken by the stunning musical 'Miss Saigon'

The special effects in Miss Saigon are spectacular
The special effects in Miss Saigon are spectacular
Ashley Gilmour as Chris and Sooha Kim as Kim in Miss Saigon at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre

Have you ever watched something that is so filled with suspense, pathos and sorrow, that you feel like you've been punched in the gut? And laughed at one funny character despite being heartbroken for the main character, while finding yourself lost in the beauty of the music?

That's Miss Saigon for you, Cameron Mackintosh's devastating 20th century retelling of Giacomo Puccini's opera, Madama Butterfly. The story centres on 1970s Saigon during the Vietnam War, and tells the tragic tale of the doomed romance between an American GI, Chris, and a 17-year-old Vietnamese bar girl, Kim. It is currently on tour through the UK, and I saw it in Birmingham ahead of its six-week Dublin run.

The musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in 1989, and it remains Broadway's 13th longest-running show. The story is set in Saigon in the last days of the Vietnam War, where orphaned teenager Kim is forced to work in a bar run by a dodgy French-Vietnamese character known as the 'Engineer'.

She meets and falls in love with Chris, but they are torn apart by the fall of Saigon and he returns to the US, unaware that Kim is pregnant. She bears a son, Tam, and steadfastly holds on to her dream that her American soldier lover will return for them.

Meanwhile, Chris has resumed normal life back in the US, where he marries an American, Ellen. He still holds a torch for Kim, though, and dreams about her at night. He eventually returns to Saigon with his wife upon learning of his son's existence. Plenty of drama ensues and the story comes to a tragic and heartbreaking conclusion, when Kim makes her own choices to protect her young son.

With themes of war, separation, love, loss, hope and despair, Miss Saigon made us cry, laugh, and gasp in amazement at the special effects. Trust me - the helicopter evacuating the Americans scene is one that you will talk about on the way home.

"I think the storyline and key themes are still really relevant in today's world," says handsome Ashley Gilmour, who plays tormented GI Chris. "War is still happening and there is still a mass exodus from some countries. It proves that human beings, as a race, still haven't learned to accept and love one another."

Songs like The Movie in My Mind, The American Dream and I Still Believe pack a powerful emotional punch, and are all beautifully delivered.

We were all seriously impressed with Sooha Kim, who was outstanding as the strong and determined Kim. Sooha was born in Korea and studied performing skills at Seoul Performing Arts High School, and then became a musical major at Dankook University, Seoul. She's the first Korean actress to perform the role of Kim in both English and Japanese.

"It's a physically quite tiring role," Sooha explains. "You're running around, holding a baby and being beaten. When I go home. I try not to speak because I have to sing for hours. I pour out all of my emotions throughout the show and feel empty and exhausted afterwards. We get a fantastic reaction from the audience every day, so it's an amazing experience."

For this production, Sooha shares the role of Kim with 17-year-old Joreen Bautista, who is making her professional theatre debut in Miss Saigon. Home-schooled back in The Philippines, she is continuing her education through e-learning throughout the run, so she studies in the morning and performs in the evening.

It was a hard decision for her leaving home to come to the UK, but she is delighted that she did it. "It's a rare opportunity," she says. "Filipina girls look up to Lea Saloga, who was the original Miss Saigon."

Ashley plays the role of Chris with aplomb, and he says it's a really intense show. Having previously performed in the touring production of Hairspray, he is delighted to be in this production of Miss Saigon.

"There's a scene at the end where Chris breaks down," he explains, describing the most challenging aspect of his role. "He holds in a lot of his emotions, like many men do, up to then. I find that I can really release so much energy and tension throughout the show."

Amid the sadness of the storyline, light relief is provided by the Engineer, played rather brilliantly by Filipino actor, Red Concepcion. He's a true cad and bounder, but lovable with it, and you can almost overlook his naked abuse of others for his own gain because of the sheer entertainment value he provides.

"He's a very devious character," agrees Red. "He's challenging to play, because you don't really know who he is as he shows different sides, depending on what he can gain from you. He's very charming and fun though, and brings most of the lightness to the show. People seem to love and hate him."

The production is top-notch, and the set is stunning as is the staging. This is due to Cameron Mackintosh, says Ashley, who is very hands-on in making sure every element is right. Irish audiences are in for a rare treat when Miss Saigon lands here. A word of warning though - make sure you bring a tissue.

Miss Saigon will run at Bord Gais Energy Theatre from October 4 to November 18. Tickets €20 to €65 available from www.ticketmaster.ie

Sunday Independent

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