Many moons ago when Mrs Front Row Dress and I were first courting, we got bored with necking Breakers at the Bell and feasting on the all-you-can-eat buffet at Pizzaland, so had our first musical theatre date at the original London production of Boublil and Schonberg’s transposing of Madame Butterfly to 1970’s Vietnam. We loved every minute of it and it has had a special place in our hearts ever since. 23 years and gallons of wine and vodka later, we find ourselves coming full cricle at Cameron Mackintosh’s revival on our old stomping ground, Old Compton Street.
American GI Chris, a buff Alastair Brammer, has a brief fling with reluctant 17-year old Vietnamese hooker Kim, a sweet 17-year old Eva Nobledaza making her professional debut. Kim and John get separated in the chaos surrounding the US withdrawal from Vietnam and he returns to the US leaving a pregnant Kim behind and marries Ellen, Tamsin Carroll in a thankless role that makes Les Miserables' Cosette seems spunky. Three years later a US charity headed by Chris’s former GI pal John, Hugh Maynard, reunite Kim and Chris in Bangkok and she makes the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the future of their son.
My memory, obviously clouded by the first flush of falling in love, has been kinder to Miss Saigon than the passage of time. A relentless flow of saccharine ballads, full of swelling strings and minor chords, whose sole aim appears to be to manipulate the tear ducts of the audience, is punctuated by a brace of up-tempo big production numbers headed by Vietnamese pimp the Engineer, a delicious crowd pleasing turn from Jon Jon Briones, who should be good in the role as he has played it on and off for the best part of two decades. Even these songs come with their own baggage, one being a paean to the joys of the flesh, “The Heat Is On In Saigon”, and the other an ode to greed, “The American Dream”.
Maybe it’s because I’m a middle aged git now, but the whole thing smacks of a cynical money making exercise with Cameron Mackintosh cast as the Engineer, putting the business into show. From the ticking of the design boxes, helicopter – yes, Cadillac – yes, giant statue of Ho Chi Minh – yes, to the wheeling on of the cute three year old, it all feels like a West-End-Hit-By-Numbers. Even Ellen’s new song “Maybe” strives to make her more sympathetic to her poor husband’s plight, I much preferred her defiant “It’s Her Or Me” from the original score. Not once do the narrative or performances engage enough to transport me out of my seat in, yes you guessed, front row dress circle.
My whinging aside, there are some fine touches, Adrian Vaux’s design uses the vertical space of the Prince Edward’s stage in tremendous fashion and there are some spectacular Edinburgh Tattoo style dance sequences courtesy of Bob Avian. But spectacular is what I guess they are going for and the spectacle does nothing to disguise the black hole at the heart of this shameless pitch for the tourist dollar. How could the updating of the lyrics by Michael Mahler have left the worst line in the history of musical theatre intact “Christ, I’m an American, how could I fail to do good?”? At least it provided me with a solitary belly laugh in an evening of self-perpetuating gloom.
The cast are top notch, the orchestra sounds great and all your hard earned ticket money is up there on stage for you to see, so you shouldn’t feel cheated, but I left as deflated as one of the Engineer’s poor suckers having been promised Cara Delevingne and ending up with White Dee.
Booking until 20 December 2014, an empty spectacle which will probably run for 25 years - Miss Saigon