The Palace Theatre, Manchester; Friday 23rd March, 2018
In the backstreets of Saigon in the mid-1970s, just as the end games of a brutally long war were playing out, an unlikely love story was blossoming. A battle weary American soldier who had only known drinking and prostitution suddenly found himself in love with a woman unlike any other he had come across – the mysterious Miss Saigon.
Based originally upon the world-famous Puccini opera Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon is itself now firmly established as one of the most successful musicals of all time – the first production ran for fully ten years and more than four thousand performances. This current version being performed at the Palace Theatre in Manchester is based on a 2014 West End revival by producer Cameron Mackintosh.
As a visual spectacle Miss Saigon is mind-blowingly good. No expense seems to have been spared, the scenery is epic, with backdrops on a grand scale that seem to suck the audience forward into each act being played out. The speed at which the set is moved around and transformed is stunning, shifting from the neon-lighted seediness of a backstreet bar to the formal solemnity of a communist party meeting, before then moving on to the bustling streets of Bangkok where the final scenes are played out. And it’s not just the background scenery where effort has been invested, the highlight of the show is undoubtedly the barely believable appearance of a helicopter, complete with spinning rotor blades – truly one of the most jaw-droppingly impressive things that you’ll see in any theatre.
Accompanying the spectacular visuals is an equally impressive soundtrack. Delivered by a live orchestra, the musical performance is so good that it almost gets forgotten, like a recorded backing track. Every part of the script is delivered in the form of song, it just about works with only a handful of instances where the plot suffered at the hands of a musical outburst.
Ultimately, though this performance of Miss Saigon is a visually and aesthetically stunning theatrical production, this is a musical that simply cannot escape the socio-political criticisms that it first met decades ago, all of which seem not only more more pertinent now but which would also probably be strong enough to (quite rightly) stop a musical such as this ever making it into production today.
The story being told absolutely is a racist and misogynistic one – the plot of Miss Saigon is a sanitised pat on the head for (pre-internet) Western theatre audiences who needed to see the doting and obedient South-East Asian woman make all the sacrifices in order to save the blushes of the noble American warrior – who is merely an innocent victim of romantic circumstance capable of doing nothing but good wherever he goes on his military rampage.
Today, in the year 2018, producer Cameron Mackintosh has certainly rendered a beautiful and glitzy adaptation of a stage classic but there’s no getting away from the fact that this show represents an embarrassing historical example of theatre makers getting it wrong; or, even worse, deliberately pushing content and meaning that they feel is appropriate. Miss Saigon is a theatrical relic where women are subjugated then defeated and the men simply get away with it and carry on. It’s a shame that more of Cameron Mackintosh’s otherwise excellent efforts weren’t put into ensuring that this didn’t leave such a bad taste in the mouth.
|Visual pleasure||A mind-blowingly good visual spectacle. Getting a cadillac on stage is impressive enough, but to top that with a helicopter was truly awe inspiring.||5|
|Auditory pleasure||A live orchestra was put to stunning effect, not just for the songs but also for the backing music, which kept everything moving along coherently.||5|
|Architecture & Theme||Miss Saigon might be a powerful love story, but looking back now from the modern day towards the era when it was written, there are aspects of this plot that are excruciatingly offensive, this awkward uncomfortableness leaves too strong an impression.||1|
|Artistic delivery||Outstanding acting and singing performances, perfectly choreographed dances, not a single weak performance despite the size of the cast.||5|
|Overall impact||A stunningly good show, this is professional theatre being delivered at the highest level. Let down only by the propaganda-esque nature of the plot and the lack of effort made to adapt it even slightly. The experience is somewhat ruined by it.||4|
|0||Detrimental – This aspect of the performance was so bad that it made the overall experience worse|
|1||Weak – This aspect of the performance was poor|
|2||Adequate – This aspect of the performance was perfectly acceptable, though nothing special|
|3||Good – This aspect of the performance was above average, it pleased in some way|
|4||Excellent – This aspect of the performance was much better than normal, it was impressive|
|5||Awe-inspiring – This aspect of the performance was exceptional, new boundaries were pushed.|