‘Miss Saigon’ Performance: A Captivating Journey Through Love, Loss, and the American Dream
Entering the Performing Arts Centre in eager anticipation of the School’s latest musical production is always a wonderful moment. It is a reminder that RGS is privileged to have such an impressive venue and such talented performers.
Like RGS’s previous production of ‘Les Misérables’, ‘Miss Saigon’ is the product of the collaboration between Schonberg and Boubil and in a similar way ‘Miss Saigon’ is an ambitious project dealing with potentially distressing subject matter. The musical presents themes which sadly are never that far from the front pages of our current media. Based on Puccini’s tragic love story ‘Madam Butterfly’, the operatic overtones are clearly evident in such a challenging musical to stage.
The production opens with a stark and quite minimalistic setting. A background of black and white stills and footage from the Vietnam War and American media capture well the bleak atmosphere of the time when protests were happening across the USA. Some strong and almost dissonant music from the orchestra helps to establish an unsettling tone and atmosphere. Unusually for such a production, the band included 18 current and former pupils, some as young as 14 years.
The play opens in Dreamland, an all-night bar providing a meeting place for American Marines to drink, relax and enjoy some female company. Lighting and costumes are bright and colourful but also lend a harsh light to the scene, reflecting the lives of the people working there. Callum Lockett as the ‘Engineer’ instantly captures the sleazy attributes and money-grabbing motives of his character. With his glittery jacket and striking make-up, he is impressively threatening and cloying. His treatment of the girls shows his lack of care and his desperation to impress his American visitors. His only motivation is to get an American Visa whatever the cost. The poignancy of the girls’ situation is apparent in the opening song as they convey ideas about their hopes and dreams; they are desperate to try to gain an escape from Vietnam. Catherine Broadbent as ‘Kim’ is outstanding; she portrays the naivety and innocence of a young girl, orphaned and now dropped into a world she cannot begin to understand. Catherine’s haunting vocals are moving and full of pathos; each song she sings will pretty much guarantee few dry eyes in the house.
The entrance of ‘Chris’ played with astonishing maturity by Charlie Raven introduces the American Marines. He is accompanied by his friend ‘John’, played by Kieran Lilley, who looks every inch the American hippie/soldier. Both actors convey well the image of Marines having a final fling before evacuating back to the States. Despite the attractions of the venue ‘Chris’ has little interest and effectively conveys the world-weary cynicism of the soldier who has seen too much.
With encouragement from Callum’s persuasive ‘Engineer’, Chris is set up with ‘Kim’. After spending the night together ‘Chris’ is clearly conflicted and cannot understand the strength of his feelings for ‘Kim’ after such a short time. The chemistry between these two characters is spellbinding; both are astonishing performances that would not be out of place in a professional production. The combination of beautiful singing vocals coupled with insightful acting skills is a rare combination. Charlie and Catherine are exceptional in these roles. The beautiful orchestral accompaniment here also adds to the bitter-sweet tone.
Some impressive costumes displayed at the wedding of ‘Chris’ and ‘Kim’ effectively highlight ‘Kim’s’ purity and beauty contrasting with the more striking, garish colours of the background setting.
Of course, the plot twist here is ‘Kim’s’ former betrothal to her cousin ‘Thuy’, played with menacing cruelty by Kieran, showcases his ability to play two contrasting roles in quick succession. ‘Kim’s’ despair at his arrival is heart breaking. The irony is that she has met a man she loves, not simply someone who can provide an escape out of the country. ‘Thuy’ is now an officer in the Vietnamese army and he threatens ‘Chris’ and ‘Kim’. This leads them to make plans to go to America stunningly portrayed and supported with ‘Last Night of the World’ and the melodic refrains of the orchestra.
The militaristic choreography of the soldiers celebrating the reunification of Vietnam is stunning and all credit to Mrs Thompson for this display of dance talent. The ‘Engineer’ and ‘Kim’ are leading different lives and ‘Thuy’ is now a government official still determined to marry ‘Kim’. We now see ‘Chris’ living in America happily married to his wife ‘Ellen’ and yet still remembering ‘Kim’. ‘Ellen’, played by Sasha Penlington, once again played with the depth of feeling and soaring musical notes that an audience would expect from a much older performer. She sings that her husband calls out ‘Kim’s’ name but ‘She Still Believes’, feelings echoed by ‘Kim’ in Vietnam.
One of the most impressive staging elements of the production occurs in a flashback scene when ‘Kim’ thinks back to ‘Chris’s’ departure from Vietnam and the harrowing scenes of ‘Kim’ and many others trying to escape with the evacuating troops. The stage crew excelled themselves here. A barbed wire fence is moved around the stage illustrating the impossibility of ‘Kim’ leaving with ‘Chris’. This, accompanied with the incredible sound effects of helicopters hovering and landing, brilliantly conveys the desperate situation of all those involved. The anguish of those left behind, plus ‘Chris’s’ distress as ‘John’ forces him to leave thereby abandoning ‘Kim’, is tangible.
There is further clever staging with the utilising of a rectangular box which is wheeled on and off the stage; its decoration of the stars and stripes symbolises the USA and is an effective way to set the American scenes. This symbolism is further developed when Callum’s ‘Engineer’, with an escape to the States in his sights, sings ‘The American Dream’ accompanied by the hugely talented ensemble carrying fans composed of dollar bills and dressed in red, white and blue. This joyous celebration is in stark contrast to the following scenes leading to the tragic finale.
The duet ‘I Still Believe’ between ‘Kim’ and ‘Ellen’ is desperately sad and movingly sung with perceptive empathy by Sasha and Catherine. Both singers brought out the impossibility of ‘Kim’s’ situation. These protagonists support on stage the two youngest performers (who alternated to avoid too many late nights), Reuben (aged just five) and William (aged eight) and are now stars of the RGS stage!
Mrs Jilly Witcomb, Director, has said how proud she is of the cast and crew and it is obvious to see why. This is a sophisticated and emotional production which deals with complex issues maturely and sensitively. As well as a stellar cast, the main actors, Catherine, Charlie, Callum, Kieran and Sasha are incomparable. They have excellent support from a stunning team of ensemble players, brilliant and innovative choreography, music which consistently conveys the high emotions of the play plus lighting and staging which all help to provide an engaging and emotional rollercoaster ride for the audience.
A standing ovation at the final curtain after another spell-binding performance was well deserved and confirms this as another triumph for RGS.
Teacher of English, Mrs Deborah Earle