REVIEW: Miss Saigon (Sunderland Empire) ★★★★

The heat is on as Miss Saigon lands at the Sunderland Empire for just under a month.

Produced by Cameron Mackintosh, directed by Laurence Connor and with music and lyrics by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, Miss Saigon – a reworking of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly – started life at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1989. Running for 10 years, it then had a reworking at the Prince Edward theatre in 2014. It is has been on a UK tour ending in Sunderland.

Set against the backdrop of the Vietnamese War of the 1970’s; innocent country girl Kim (Sooha Kim) escapes to Saigon from her village and planned arranged marriage to Thuy (Gerald Stantos). Found by The Engineer (Leo Tavarro Valdez) he takes her to his seedy bar Dreamland which is populated by the American GI’s who use the girls who work at the bar. Sensing he can use her innocence and sell her virginity to the highest bidder, The Engineer does the mock “Miss Saigon” contest to show off her purity against the other working girls. Gigi (Aicelle Santos) wins the contest but not before a bidding war as started on Kim. GI John (Ryan O’Gorman) is the winning bidder and gives Kim to his friend Chris (Ashley Gilmour) as a present to cheer him up. She willingly gives up her virginity and Kim and Chris fall in love.

Fortune however deals them a series of cruel blows and when Saigon falls to enemy forces, in the musical’s iconic moment Chris is airlifted to safety in a helicopter and the pregnant Kim must fend for herself. Three years pass, Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh. Thuy is now a Commissar and sends the very down at heel Engineer to find Kim. Thuy wants his arranged marriage. The Engineer finds Kim surviving on the streets with her son Tam (Ava Lui, Bethany Ng, Evie- Rose Mak Foster, Francesca Rose Jangonase and Lavinia Tran sharing the role). Whilst The Engineer sees a mixed race child as his passport to America, Thuy see’s as a betrayal and means to kill the child until Kim kills him, shooting him with Chris’s gun. Kim, Tam and The Engineer escape to Bangkok.

Back in the USA, Chris is married to Ellen (Elana Martin). The Vietnamese war and losing Kim broke him and he fell into a depression. Ellen helped pick up the pieces but he still suffers with nightmares and was still trying to find word of Kim. John, now working for a charity that helps with war orphans, gets word of Kim and her son Tam and tells Chris. John, Chris and Ellen go to Bangkok to find Kim and his son.

Sooha Kim exudes vulnerability and has an effortlessly beautiful singing voice, clear and sweet, Ashley Gilmour is a suitably simplistic Chris. Ellen is sensitively played by Elana Martin, helping to understand how conflicted a woman she is. Gerald Santos as Thuy, Kim’s intended husband, has a rich, powerful voice and brings an intense dignity to his efforts to win her back. But the star is Leo Tavarro Valdez who plays The Engineer. He is charming and yet conniving, seedy, funny, savage, ruthless and sleazy and commands even an empty stage; everything The Engineer should be.

Miss Saigon, at almost 3 hours long, is packed full of songs. Based on an opera, it is nearly all sung through with very little dialogue. Big songs like The Movie in my Mind, Why God Why, Sun and Moon and the Last Night of the World are sung in very quick succession. American Dream casts an ironic commentary on the dreams and ambitions of the ‘fixer’ character of the Engineer. Bui Doi, normally never fails to have me in tears but I remained dry eyed at press night.

The moment everyone waits for – the life size helicopter descending on to the stage, was partly done with a projection but is still quite impressive. Miss Saigon will always be a massive spectacle – a wave of raw emotion, gritty, violent and sexy. Suffocating but sincere the show reflects much more of the reality of war.

Reviewed by Susan Lindsay
Photo: Johan Persson


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