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REVIEW: The show is on in Solaire; ‘Miss Saigon’ comes at full force in the new touring cast production

I was looking for a fight, coming into this show but instead was once again charmed and wowed by the sheer spectacle of the material and the timelessness of the music of the play.

The last time I saw ‘Miss Saigon’ was at the CCP sometime in the early 2000s when Lea Salonga had just returned from a triumphant run both in Broadway and the West End and won the Laurence Olivier award in London and the Tony in New York. She performed alongside Leo Valdez (as the Engineer), and it was the first time (as I recall) that the revolving stage was constructed and used in the CCP Main Theater. 

Ever since, the music of ‘Miss Saigon’ by Claude-Michel Schonberg has always been anthemic. The songs (with lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr and Alan Boublil) are catchy. They have a gorgeous melody that really flows from song to song. It’s also a spectacle, demanding that the stage transform into a seedy, girly bar in Vietnam, and then later on to transform into the gates of the American embassy in Saigon where a helicopter takes away the soldiers as they flee the war – it’s an iconic moment in the play and grand spectacle that makes the play truly unforgettable.

Miss Saigon AU – Abigail Adriano | Photo by Daniel Boud

This would be my first time to revisit the musical since I saw it almost 25 years ago and time has changed both the play and me, as I’m watching it with more grown-up, more world-weary eyes. 

This new 2024 touring cast production, first and foremost, with the orchestrations of William David Brohn really sell how gorgeous Schonberg’s compositions are. They are stirring and with the live orchestra just hitting every note wonderfully, showcases the great hooks of ‘Miss Saigon.’ On the other hand, the direction by Laurence Conner (with musical staging by Bob Avian and Asian tour production is directed by Jean-Pierre Van Der Spuy) leaves no space for subtlety. Everything is big and loud and frenetic. There seems to even be a direction that every should sing big and loud and at the strongest volume. The performances, at times, can feel more like they are singing for a concert rather than a play. This overall feel has advantages and disadvantages depending on the number or the character.

Miss Saigon AU – Abigail Adriano & Nigel Huckle | Photo by Daniel Boud

The popular love duet ‘Sun and Moon’ has an unnecessary tension because the direction has both Kim (Abigail Adriano) and Chris (Nigel Huckle), the star struck lovers who have spent a night together, wrapped in each other’s arms by the stairs of their little room. It is intimate and personal, but they are singing so loudly at each other when, visually, they are right in front of each other. The moment is transformed from one of tender recognition of each other as a place of safety into a concert-level performance. Singing loudly here, would have benefitted from being on the opposite ends of stage and filling that gap with their voices. Huddled so closely demanded a softer delivery of the popular song.

Miss Saigon AU – Photo by Daniel Boud

But while this direction distorts a lot of songs like ‘Sun and Moon,’ it does great wonders for Seann Miley Moore, who plays the Engineer. A lot of his songs are flashy and showy and this big, non-nuanced direction allows him to treat each of his songs – “If You Want to Die in Bed,” “What a Waste,” and “The American Dream” – as big showstopping numbers. He gets to infuse each number with so much verve and personality (of which Moore has a lot of) that he easily steals this entire production. It’s great to see such a dynamic performance of The Engineer.

Moore’s Engineer is coy and flirty and then he’d burst into an act of cruelty out of the blue. It keeps his Engineer so unpredictable that he adds his own danger to the role that truly makes it take center stage. You’re always waiting to see what he will do next.

Kiara Dario, who plays Gigi, is the only one I noticed who was able to find a space between the loud, extravagant performance and the drama of her character as she sings ‘The Movie in My Mind.’ Her solo is full of heartbreak that feels both authentic and powerful at the same time. 

Photo by Andrew Beveridge

To match all that on-stage energy, the stagecraft of the whole production is a well-executed dance of moving sets, projections, and lighting. The stage design by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley is dynamic and mercurial, turning in one moment into the seedy girly bar Dreamland and then, in less than 5 seconds, becomes a bustling street in Saigon, and then in another moment turns into the gates of the American Embassy in Vietnam for the famous helicopter scene. Despite the size of it all, Driver and Kinley keep everything busy, cluttered, claustrophobic that gives the feeling that the collision of these diverse worlds – the US and the Vietnamese – was inevitable in this situation and forced upon by these circumstances. Everyone here is just a victim. The lighting design of Bruno Poet never fully illuminates the stage, turning everything into a spotlight that matches with the performative direction of the cast. It’s dark at the fringes, it is always about to be covered in darkness and highlights the plays refusal to ever just be a love story. This is a war story, and you can tell from the lighting.

Photo by Daniel Boud

I don’t know if it’s my age or my own experiences but watching this version of ‘Miss Saigon,’ I do not see any sort of American propaganda in the subtext of this story. There’s no whitewashing in this production of the fact that America’s presence in Saigon at this time was both unwelcomed and unwarranted. The way by which the Engineer sings about America highlights America’s capitalist tendencies and manages to not paint it in the good light; and when the suffering that is left behind by the Americans come to the fore – like in the way that Kim’s life is turned upside down by Chris’ affections – it becomes really ironic when Huckle, as Chris, sings out “I’m an American how can I fail to do good?” The irony falls hard when the play, in this version, shows Chris to be either ignorant or oblivious to the hurt the has caused.

Photo by Daniel Boud

It’s a very different from the play that I saw in the early 2000s that had a more heroic positioning of America and I appreciate it a lot more for it. This production does not treat the Americans as heroes, nor does it treat Thuy (Laurence Mossman) and the communist party as the bad guys – they are just agents in a war that is happening in Vietnam (of which the Americans had inserted themselves in).

Photo by Daniel Boud
Miss Saigon AU – Laurence Mossman | Photo by Daniel Boud

I was looking for a fight, coming into this show but instead was once again charmed and wowed by the sheer spectacle of the material and the timelessness of the music of the play. Adriano, Huckle, Moore, Dario, and the rest of the cast are such great singers and really pull out all the stops to make ‘Miss Saigon’ the theater event that it is. It was not meant to be subtle and that may not be such a bad thing.

My Rating:

5 stars - Don't Look Up review

Miss Saigon is currently running at The Theatre at Solaire until May 12. Tickets are available exclusively through TicketWorld.

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