Miss Saigon review – assured interpretation of a classic that remains a sweeping epic

Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s classic returns in a new production in Sheffield.

Jessica Lee (Kim and Alternate Mimi) and Christian Maynard (Chris) in Miss Saigon, © Johan Persson
Jessica Lee (Kim and Alternate Mimi) and Christian Maynard (Chris) in Miss Saigon, © Johan Persson

Miss Saigon is a musical which has had its fair share of contention, with accusations of misogyny, inappropriate casting, racism and the perpetuation of stereotypes all being levelled at it. Indeed, when Sheffield Theatres announced their summer season centrepiece, a theatre company withdrew the venue from their touring schedule in response. With this revival, however, audiences are offered a production with a diverse company and creative team, coupled with a thorough reappraisal of the original text and some culturally sensitive casting.

Reimagining Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon tells the story of a doomed romance forged in the latter stages of the Vietnam war, as American GI, Chris, falls in love with Vietnamese bar girl, Kim. As political changes sweep Saigon, their marriage is torn apart and Chris is forced to flee the city, leaving Kim to wait patiently for his return.

Played out predominantly on a grey, empty stage with only a large moveable staircase, minimal props and occasional pops of colour (courtesy of lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun) seep through the metallic backdrop of the Crucible’s thrust stage. Directors Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau make the most of their large ensemble cast and their performance space, flooding the stage with boisterous musical numbers, balancing movement with quieter, more intimate moments between characters.

Jessica Lee as Kim gives a tender and sympathetic performance, whilst Christian Maynard is in fine operatic voice as Chris. Ethan Le Phong excels as Thuy, demanding your attention with a genuine talent, and Joanna Ampil commands the stage with a domineering performance as the Engineer.

The production is very much one of contrasts – the blossoming love between Kim and Chis is set against the chaotic fall of Saigon, and the muted palette on stage is hijacked by infrequent explosions of colour. As a sung-through musical, some numbers stand out: “The Last Night of The World” is a particular highlight, whilst others outstay their welcome. On occasions, the juxtaposition and tonal shifts jar too sharply – nowhere more evident than the penultimate song, “American Dream”, which is an overtly kitsch and colourful, large-scale Marilyn Monroe pastiche production number, which is sandwiched uneasily between an emotionally charged confrontation between Kim and Ellen and the heartstring-tugging denouement of the piece.

However, the moments of genuine drama and pathos elevate this production into a sweeping epic and one which is confident in its revised interpretation of the source material.