It’s hard to believe that the last time Miss Saigon was in Melbourne was 16 years ago (2007). In its now third professional visit to Australia (its first in 1995), the 2023 Australian musical production is proudly presented by Opera Australia, Cameron Mackintosh’s acclaimed new production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Miss Saigon, complete with fresh talent and a new song.
New song? Well, the last time Miss Saigon was in Australia, the character of Ellen had a song titled ‘Now That I’ve Seen Her’ which has since been replaced with ‘Maybe’ (2014). However, it’s not just Ellen’s song that has changed. Throughout its entire existence, Miss Saigon has evolved with the times, some lyrics of the songs tweaked to be more fitting, appropriate and politically correct. Although, the changes in lyrics haven’t hindered the musical at all.
For the uninitiated, Miss Saigon is based on the 1904 opera by Giacomo Puccini ‘Madama Butterfly’ which tells the tale of love and war between a Japanese woman and an American naval officer. Miss Saigon takes a more modern approach, with its story set around The Vietnam War, following a relationship between a Vietnamese woman and an American Marine.
This production of Miss Saigon is reimagined in a way that takes back the narrative on racial discrimination and prejudice. Directed by Laurence Connor, the staging by Bob Avian and additional musical staging by Georffrey Garratt is nothing short of amazing. This is a production that will have you wondering, “How did they do that?”.
The costume design by Andreane Neofitou is as beautiful as it is effective, making you feel like that you’ve really travelled back in time to 1975 during the fall of Saigon. The dresses worn by some of the cast members, especially in ‘The Wedding Ceremony’ scene are also by far some of the most beautiful costumes I’ve seen in musical theatre. Miss Saigon feels sexier, bolder, more body and sexually positive, socially aware, and this version is more powerful than it ever was before. The emotional punch that Miss Saigon provides with its bittersweet story and anthemic tunes holds nothing back.
Transported to Dream Land, we find ourselves in Saigon, Vietnam at an establishment run by seasoned hustler The Engineer, whose job is to entice men, particularly the American officers, to pay for sex. The sex workers are filled with women who are clearly just doing this job to survive, and this includes venue veteran Gigi played by mixed-race Filipino-Australian Kimberley Hodgson. Hodgson’s performance in ‘The Movie in My Mind’ is gripping. Hodgson is a vocal powerhouse who fiercely leaks the drive, pain, and perseverance that her character is known for. I honestly wanted to see more of her in this production because in the first act, she was sublime.
Filipino-Kiwi Laurence Mossman stuns as Thuy with his commanding stage presence and strong voice. Much like Hogdson, I too was wanting to see more of Mossman on the stage and was sad to see him leave as quickly as he came. His presence in the second act is even more intimidating and jaw dropping.
John is played by Samoan-Croatian-Kiwi actor Nick Afoa whose character’s transformation is a significant one, from an American Marine willingly flaunting and flexing his power and privileges in Vietnam, to a man acknowledging his past and wanting to make a change, not only his mistakes but the mistakes of others. John seems to have his own demons and Afoa’s vocal prowess shines in ‘Bui Doi’ with part of the song performed acapella. Afoa’s vocals are like honey for the ears with excellent vocal runs that many would both praise and be envious of. Even when he isn’t singing, his facial expressions speak volumes of being stuck in the middle of a situation that his past self is involved and responsible for.
The role of Tam is an important one and is shared in this Melbourne season with 8 young cast members. On opening night, the role was played by Chinese-Filipino Archer Wang, who is only 5 years old! His stage presence was so adorable to the point where the entire audience, including myself, were gushing in awe in every scene that he was in.
Kerrie Anne Greenland’s Ellen is hauntingly earnest. ‘Maybe’ is already an insatiable beautiful song, but with Greenland’s vocals, the song is taken to a new level that I’ve not heard before. Admittedly, she is a character I have always disliked but in this version, you feel sorry for her and cannot come up with a solution for her predicament.
Special mention to Atsushi Okumura, Tetsuya Okubo and Gabriel Brasilio who shine mid-way during the show with their insane tricks, grinds and flips. Their strength is incredible and almost superhero like.
Australian-American Nigel Huckle is vocally impressive as Chris. His rendition of ‘Why, God, Why?’ is performed with such a genuine despair and fire and even more so in ‘The Confrontation’. You really get a glimpse of Chris’ struggles, overwhelmed from the culture shock and the war. While it is debatable whether he is like every other marine or a victim of circumstance, it is undeniable that his journey and his chemistry with Abigail Adriano’s Kim is believable and emotional to witness. At some points, it felt like I was awkwardly intruding on their intimate moments together.
I understand that the role may be very intimidating with big shoes to fill, especially with Miss Saigon’s history of launching Filipino talent in the theatre scene. But when Filipino-Australian Abigail Adriano in her lead professional theatre debut, started singing, all my expectations and memories of past Kim’s before melted away. I found myself thoroughly absorbed in Adriano’s unique, pure, innocent, sweet and smart portrayal of the iconic character. Adriano’s Kim is neither crazy nor inadequate, every moment and movement that her character makes is with careful consideration and thought to her loved ones. Adriano is Kim. Her fearless raw talent, passion, and sincerity for both the role and her performance moved me to tears.
Filipino-Australian Seann Miley Moore makes the sleazy, vicious and selfish pimp The Engineer extremely likable. Turning the hetero character on its head, Moore gives The Engineer a much-needed queer twist. Appearing more as an ally to the sex workers at Dream Land than in any other previous version, Moore is captivating from the very beginning, demanding our attention and injecting their own infectious charisma and cheeky aura into the character.
For the first time, I found sympathy in The Engineer’s story. He is just a man who is trying to survive as much as everyone else. Moore’s mischievous manner and wit rub off on the character in such a fabulous way that with various scene stealing moments, including one with cast member Hamish Johnston, Moore had the audience consistently cackling. Moore reinvents The Engineer and is particularly fantastic during the number ‘American Dream’. I honestly believe that they were born to play this role and their performance is well worth the admission alone. Moore is a superstar.
The entire cast and crew of Miss Saigon are the best in the business and I must confess, I’ve deeply loved musicals for decades and I’ve not seen a musical better than this one. Expertly tugging at your heartstrings, Miss Saigon is eloquently romantic in all the right places, and this flawless, exquisite, and culturally diverse musical, which has been an institution for many Asian performers in its lifetime, is undeniably a must-see phenomenon.
Miss Saigon is currently playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne until December 16th before heading over to Adelaide in January.
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Photography by Grant Alexander.