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Miss Saigon – Sunderland Empire

There are so many musicals that I’m a bit embarrassed to say I haven’t seen live – Les Mis, The Lion King, Phantom of the Opera, Hamilton (I’m just trying to find a ticket that isn’t £200). Some of the longer running musicals get put on the back burner in favour of shiny, new productions, but they haven’t been running for over twenty years without being pretty epic. Miss Saigon, based on Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly first premiered in London in 1989 and has enjoyed worldwide success. Written by the team that wrote Les Miserables (Schönberg and Boublil), the story was inspired by a photograph of Vietnamese mother leaving her child at a departure gate to go and live in the US, where their GI father would be able to provide a better life for the child. Thus, the central theme of a mother’s sacrifice emerged, as well as the horror of war, love, separation and hope. 

In Act 1 we are first transported to ‘Dreamland,’ a Saigon brothel shortly before the end of the Vietnam War. The staging is impressive, energetic and realistic – with lots of neon signs and plenty of GIs pawing at scantily clad sex workers who are competing for the title of Miss Saigon (the alluring Gigi Van Tranh wins). We’re introduced to Kim (Sootha Ka), a peasant girl who’s brought to the club by enigmatic and OTT Engineer (Leo Navarro Valdez) who owns the club. The Engineer practically steals the show from the first scene, laugh-out-loud funny even though he’s in the exploitation business. The girls sing about the dreams of a better life in the song “Movie In My Mind.” We meet Chris (Ashley Gilmour)), a sergeant disillusioned with the club scene (who is enchanted by Kim) and his friend John (Ryan O’Gorman), who still seems pretty enthusiastic about it. John rents a room for Chris and Kim, who end up falling for each other over the course of one passionate night, encompassed by the song “Sun and Moon.”

Chris and John in Dreamland

At one point, my friend turned to me and said, “these songs remind me of Les Mis” and she wasn’t wrong – the songs are quite Les Mis like in their scope and sound because it was created by the same people. It starts off intense and doesn’t let up for three hours. A marriage takes place, even though we find out that Kim is already betrothed to her cousin Thuy, but then fate intervenes and Kim and Chris are separated for three years after the reunification of Vietnam. 

The action moves from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City in 1978 where an impressive street parade takes place, celebrated by “The Morning of the Dragon.” Kim’s cousin Thuy works for the government and goes after the Engineer to find out Kim’s whereabouts. Living in poverty since the fateful night with Chris, Kim’s love for him keeps her going. In a split-screen scene we find out that Chris has been married to Ellen whilst he’s been back in the US, but he’s still shouting Kim’s name in his sleep (I knew there was a love triangle involved). And another secret is revealed before the interval which threatens to change the course of the lead characters lives forever. The ever-corrupt Engineer is instrumental in helping Kim and their characters form a bond, despite his initial attempt at being her pimp. 
Chris and Kim – love at first sight
I won’t go into too much detail about Act 2 but I can say that it involves an emotional video showing orphaned street children (Bui Doi) who were conceived during the war by American fathers and Vietnamese mothers. Even though I don’t know a huge amount about the Vietnam War, it really made the human aspect of the war hit home. Do Chris and Kim reunite? Do they get their happy ending? You’ll have to go along to find out, but take tissues just in case.  In a flashback to the night that Saigon fell, we discover how they were separated in a chaotic scene involving the US embassy where any remaining American citizens are ordered to leave immediately. I knew there was a life-sized helicopter prop involved and the scene doesn’t disappoint visually or emotionally. 
The desperate mob at the US embassy and the to scale chopper!

I found the central love story a little unbelievable but I had to remind myself this is based on an opera and heightened by the tensions of war. The musical numbers (there are nearly thirty and 99% of the musical is sung) conveyed the intense emotions brilliantly. I really enjoyed the character of The Engineer, brilliantly played by Leo Navarro Valdez and his big number “The American Dream” definitely delivered plenty of humour as he imagines his extravagant new life in America (think all of the cliches). The staging is amazing, the dancers and the orchestra are top notch and you’ll be captivated from the opening second. 

Miss Saigon is at The Sunderland Empire until November 17th. Buy tickets here

*I received two tickets in return for a review

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