Miss Saigon. One of the West End big hitters that comes to mind when people are listing blockbuster shows alongside Les Mis, Cats and Phantom of the Opera. PLOS have a great reputation in the theatre circuit. Known for their impressive sets and recently developed ‘projections’ shtick, Miss Saigon had audiences buzzing in the foyer on opening night with anticipation.
The set for this production is the star of the show. Set designer Mike Fletcher states in the program that the set is almost entirely constructed with “cardboard tubes and cable ties!” and if I hadn’t read that, I would almost swear it was real bamboo. Fletcher has done an exceedingly impressive job creating a dingy and authentic Saigon from the ground up and he should be commended for his very clever use of basic resources.
Fronting the cast are musical theatre Superstar (see what I did there?) Tom Green and Guada Bañez. Both aged 21, it was wonderful to see two people taking the lead at such a young age. Green somehow makes Chris look like a fairly easy sing. It isn’t. In addition to being a raw and vulnerable actor, Green just also happens to be a powerhouse vocalist that pulls off the biggest of notes with what appears to be the smallest of effort. Bañez is a natural Kim – she’s beautiful and has a real innocence and grace about her. Vocally however she pulled back in some really key moments that lost a connection to the importance of the text (I Still Believe and Kim’s entire Nightmare Sequence, for example). Green and Bañez’s onstage chemistry was somewhat lacking, and for the first time ever, I don’t blame the actors own abilities.
Direction by Scott Hili was somewhat confusing and robbed the show of some very powerful moments. Chris sings ‘Why God Why’ whilst looking at shiny objects on a bedside table and then running between Kim’s room and the war bunker and back again; Kim sings ‘Sun and Moon’ to the back of Chris’ head whilst brushing her hair; and the pivotal reprise of this same number in Act Two is performed not in a state of loss and devastation, but whilst she is getting dressed and distracted by the buttons on her shoulder. These and other moments were both confusing and disappointing. There is real value in giving actors the chances to be still and indulge in the text of these incredible songs.
Michael Laity’s Engineer drives this show. Laity has a clear sense of the arc of his character and audiences are treated to the true rise and fall of this misguided, ambitious and ultimately doomed entrepreneur. Reprising his performance of Thuy, Adam Jon presented the most authentic Asian accent I have ever heard from a non-Asian performer. A strong stage presence and great vocals, Jon gives a truly polished performance.
Ensemble performances are good, but as a collective, both musically and choreographically they are a bit messy. Costuming by Brett Wingfield is authentic and it was fantastic to finally see ‘Saigon’ costumes that are flattering and body-appropriate; the girls look fantastic. Costuming in Act Two however was a little extreme and almost unintentionally comical. Chris walks into his hotel room looking like Disco Stu, complete with a curly wig that he can’t run his hands through (though he nearly went for it a few times). Ellen looks like a stand in for Agnetha Fälstkog sporting a wig that screams “I am a wig”. I know it’s the 70s, but those outfits looked like they stopped at a costume shop on the way to Bangkok and got a 2-for-1 deal on “disco”.
Lighting and sound were both issues. Chris constantly out-sang Kim in duets but I’m going to assume this was opening night teething problems. The lighting on the sets was beautiful but it was undone by the poor lighting of the actors that were performing on it. It was very dark and did little to serve the storyline. Big ensemble numbers often left me scanning the stage for the soloist – this was a particular issue in the opening number and The Fall of Saigon. The consistent over-use of tight, handheld spotlights was incredibly distracting. Handheld spotlights are always going to shake, you cannot use them shrunk to the size of an actors face for the entire length of a song; it looks awful.
Choreography by co-choreographers Tess and Mon Sabbatucci is well done. They are blessed with some fantastic dancers in the cast who can pull off all sorts of tricks in The Morning of the Dragon. I really appreciate choreographers who go to the efforts of not doing ‘block choreography’ (where everyone is doing the same thing), so well done to both girls.
As a whole, this is a solid production that puts PLOS ahead of many companies in terms of standards. It’s just the lack of attention to textual detail that leaves this show lacking. Sometimes less really is more. Actors don’t need to be given a physical distraction every time they sing a song. Sometimes it really is just enough to stand and deliver. The show really is worth seeing for the beautiful set, Green, Laity and Jon’s knockout performances and the beautiful orchestrations conducted by Anthony Bingham. Not to mention it’s also just a show you should “see”. Saigon isn’t performed very often because it is so difficult to cast and really needs a “decent” budget to achieve some of the required scenic effects. PLOS has put together a beautiful production and despite it’s flaws, I still highly recommend it. This production is of a standard that is guaranteed to provide an exciting night at the theatre.
PLOS Productions Musical Productions
July 22- 30