Since its original West End run, when the now unspeakable yellowface casting of Jonathan Pryce as a Vietnamese pimp marred its otherwise blockbuster success, Miss Saigon has felt problematic, even a little off. An adaptation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly – itself the subject of colonial revisionist criticism – it has never quite shaken free of controversy. Some of the show’s offences were mitigated by judicious casting, so that Vietnamese actors finally got to play themselves on stage. But others linger or haunt the work in ways more difficult to articulate.
The story – American soldier and Vietnamese bargirl fall in love but are separated by the fall of Saigon – has remained the same, as has the lushly romantic score. But since its debut, a lot of work has been done on the lyrics, which in the original production leaned heavily on the crassness and posturing self-regard of US military jargon. It’s a more culturally sensitive work as a result, even if the outline of American imperialism is still visible underneath.
The problem, though, stems not from Miss Saigon’s cosmetic Americanisms but from something deeper, something that can’t be changed. The show was written by Frenchmen Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, riding high after the undeniable triumph of Les Miserables. Vietnam’s relationship with America is tricky, certainly, but its relationship with France – the original, brutal colonisers of that country – is positively toxic. Perhaps the rot set in before a single note was composed.
And yet, for all that, the show still goes on. It’s consistently revived on the West End and on Broadway, and this new production, mounted by Opera Australia but first seen in London in 2014, proves it’s as powerful and affecting as ever. Asian-Australian actors are front and centre – in fact, they’re the best thing on stage by a mile – and the roles they are playing no longer seem as abject or helpless as they once did. Even the Americans seem more benign, more nuanced and conflicted.
All productions begin and end with the actor playing Kim (Abigail Adriano), the character who endures the most, sacrifices the most and most transforms the people around her. It’s a fiendishly demanding part with the bulk of the show’s big numbers, and Adriano equips herself brilliantly. She has to show sweetness and vulnerability but then flintiness and tenacity, and eventually she has to grow into a kind of heroic fireball, burning through injustice and the cruelty of fate. Her voice is perhaps not as warm as it could be – there is something airless about her top register – but it is driving and confidant. She seems to embody the resilience and determination of the part, an assuredness that emanates from her and steadies the entire production.
As the Engineer, the musical’s impish id, Seann Miley Moore gets to have all the fun; thankfully, with a performance bursting with brio and charisma, so does the audience. It’s a star-making role – Pryce won the Tony for his highly criticised take on it, and Jon Jon Briones showed what could be achieved in the part with his wonderfully oily interpretation for the 2014 West End revival – and Moore is certainly stellar. He’s Falstaffian in his wit and moral relativism, but also sleekly sexual, flagrantly queer, often frighteningly aggressive.
Director Jean-Pierre Van Der Spuy emphasises aggressive sexuality throughout, in a production that feels more immediate and vital than some that have come before. Perhaps it’s the more contained production design (Totie Driver and Matt Kinley), with its dark sensual wood and intensely vibrant red and gold material. Or Bruno Poet’s luscious lighting, which picks out bodies and details from a wash of colour.
You see it in the blunt physicality of Kim’s relationship with soldier Chris (Nigel Huckle), a relationship that needs to sweep us away if we’re to buy into the tragedy that follows. Huckle handles the character’s shift from impassioned lover to emotional wreck with conviction – the part can so easily spool into an irritating whine – and his second act dilemma feels authentic and understandably corrosive. Nick Afoa makes an arresting and leonine John, Laurence Mossman is elegantly compromised as Thuy and Kimberley Hodgson is fierce and vivid as Gigi, a woman whose story mirrors Kim’s but may lead to hope.
The ensemble are superb, precise and committed at every moment. The two scenes at sleaze bars that occur near the beginning of each act are suitably grubby, sordid and electrifying, and the Engineer’s 11-o-clock number, ‘The American Dream’, is a satirical, show-stopping highlight. But equally effective are the gentle moments, the wedding ceremony of ‘Dju vui vay’ or the swelling heartbreak of ‘Exodus’. Orchestra Victoria plays the expansive and luxurious score with absolute mastery.
Miss Saigon is an expertly designed melodrama, emotionally manipulative but also hard to resist. Its stakes are high and its characters are deeply moving, even when buffeted by circumstances the production has never really been interested to interrogate. One could see it and not even realise the Americans are an occupying force. And the fact that two Frenchmen felt perfectly entitled to tell it in the first place means it will always sit uncomfortably in the musical canon. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see it; we just need to remember whose lens we are looking through when we do.