Note: This review dates from November 1997 and the musical's West End run at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
Based on the same novel as the opera Madame Butterfly (Madame Crysanthemum by Pierre Loti if you re wondering), Miss Saigon is a love story about a young American GI whose life is transformed when he meets a local girl during the last three weeks before the fall of Saigon.
The first act revolves around the seedy Asian sex bars, ruled by the Engineer (Raul Aranas), a half-French, half-Vietnamese wheeler-dealer pimp who hawks his girls to the GIs. Chris (Scott Anson) is the GI with a conscience who abhors the vulgar, sex-bar scene; Kim (Ma-Anne Dionisio on the night) the love interest who's lost her family to the war and is forced into the prostitution trade. Naïve and inexperienced, Kim is crowned Miss Saigon and sold as a gift for Chris from his best friend. In what seems a surreal turn of events, given the surroundings, the two fall deeply in love and marry. "In a place that won't let us feel, in a life where nothing seems real, I have found you" sing the newlyweds. But not for long - the dramatic fall of Saigon brings a hasty end to their romance and takes their lives in separate directions.
John Napier's set conjures up a hot Oriental world of lights, sex and poverty, where elaborate Asian costumes (Andreane Neofitou) are offset only by the GIs simple, camouflage uniforms. From the prostitutes' tacky bikinis to the elegant dresses at Kim's marriage ceremony and the carnival dragons and national dress on parade after the city's fall to the communists, this is a gorgeously varied fashion show that makes the Milan catwalks look boring. Close your eyes for a second and you'll miss something!
Performance-wise, the star of the show, by a hair, is Aranas' Engineer who is wonderfully crass and slimey. Dionisio's portrayal of Kim is also stunning, reaching its true potential during "I Still Believe", a duet with Chris' new American wife (Jacinta Whyte).
The 85-foot stage plays host to all sorts of scenes, the most memorable of which must be the escape from Saigon when a helicopter lands behind steel fencing at the American Embassy. For full effect, I suggest getting seats in the stalls as those in the top tier of the theatre miss out on some of the action at the back of the stage.
Miss Saigon is a stunning show, made even more remarkable by its anchoring in the real lives rather than the politics of war. Just as you lose yourself to what seems like fiction, you're dragged back to the grim reality of the situation by a short video - "Bui Doi, the dust of life" - accompanied by a song for the thousands of half-cast children who are the legacy of GIs in Vietnam.