Most people remember this moving musical for that helicopter. Along with the crashing chandelier in Phantom it is a symbol of how the musical genre has become high concept, a trait more associated with cinema previously. But beneath this expensive window dressing lies a romantic tragedy with a huge heart.
For this new tour, Cameron Mackintosh's original production has been scaled down to accommodate smaller theatres. So, out goes the helicopter and huge sets, replaced by video projection and a more intimate setting.
Luckily these changes take nothing away from this record-breaking show. In fact, due to the downsizing you are now able to become more involved with the beautiful narrative strands. Set in 1975, this is a highly-charged love story between Kim, a young Vietnamese woman, and American GI, Chris. As the evacuation of Saigon takes place, the couple find themselves separated. We are then shown contrasting images of their lives until they eventually reunite. But as the story is loosely based on Puccini's Madame Butterfly there is no rosy sense of equilibrium.
This is the fourth time I have seen this show and I have to say the current cast is one of the best. Ima Castro avoids the obvious pitfalls in her portrayal of Kim. This role can sometimes consist of much emoting and no depth but Castro is stunning as you realise what motivates her character before you shed a tear. Ramin Karimloo likewise portrays Chris with a back-story via his body language and wonderful singing voice. The two have the chemistry necessary to make you believe their plight. Scene-stealer Jon Jon Briones' engineer is excellent, playing up to the audience at every opportunity. His rendition of "American Dream" is filled with satire, complimented by Gerald Scarfe's amusing animation.
John Partridge, Christian Rey Marbella and Lara Pulver all elevate the roles of John, Thuy and Ellen to so much more than mere support thanks to their amazing vocals. The standout songs remain as moving as they ever were. "Movie In My Mind" still has the power to make a grown man cry as does "Why God Why." Even "Bui Doi" is not as earnest or over the top as it used to be. Less certainly means more here.
After almost 20 years the heat, passion and heartache of Saigon remains and yes, you will still believe.
- Glenn Meads (reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Manchester)