Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 1st August, 2017
Schonberg & Boubil’s ‘other’ musical comes to Brum for a lengthy stay – I can’t see its popularity diminishing over the summer. Not having seen it for 13 years or so, I am reminded of the show’s emotionally charged excellence; it’s almost like coming to it fresh. Of course, if you know Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (and who doesn’t?), you’ll know where the plot is heading but tragedy expected is no less affecting than tragedy unforeseen. Perhaps it is more so.
Sooha Kim is our ill-fated heroine, a massive voice in a tiny frame, singing with such range and power. Kim (the character) retains her loyalty, innocence and naivety to the last, while Kim (the performer) repeatedly knocks our socks off as fast as we can put them back on. A truly stunning appearance of undeniable star quality.
Leading man Chris (Ashley Gilmour) is buff in all the right places and while his voice blends perfectly in duet with Kim, it could do with a bit more muscle for his solos. Gerald Santos’s Thuy is a striking villain but of the men, it is Red Concepcion as the opportunistic pimp, The Engineer, who truly stands out. Morally repugnant, we take to him because of his overt humanity – plus he adds a touch of humour to the heart-rending drama.
There are also strong appearances from Marsha Songcome as Gigi, and Zoe Doano as Chris’s wife Ellen. Ryan O’Gorman’s John, along with a male chorus, sings beautifully about Bui Doi – the kids left behind in Viet Nam by the American soldiers who fathered them – even if it does come across like a charity appeal.
This is musical theatre on the grandest scale. A company of 69 performers flood the stage while a 15-piece orchestra delivers Schonberg’s sumptuous score under the capable baton of James McKeon. Scene transitions are almost imperceptible as scenery floats away into darkness, while Bruno Poet’s lighting adds to the sultry atmosphere – it’s a warm night in the Hippodrome auditorium, which enhances the Far East feel. Technically, the production is excellent: the long-awaited appearance of the helicopter is a thrilling reminder of the power of practical effects.
A powerfully dramatic story set among global events, Kim’s tale is perhaps a metaphor for the treatment of developing countries by Western foreign policy. We take what we want and leave them to struggle, often worse off than before our intervention. Otherwise, it’s a stirring personal tale that stirs the emotions to an operatic extent in which men are users and abusers and women are objects to be possessed or discarded. Kim’s inability to realise this, her stubborn clinging to her idealised vision of Chris, is her fatal flaw.
This is a chance to be blown away by spectacle as much as to be touched by the drama. Lacking the sweep of Les Mis, Miss Saigon concentrates its emotions into a smaller cast of main players but is equally as moving. A theatrical event that should not be missed.