There is a movie in my mind. I see a jungle enveloped in napalm fire. I see helicopter gunships strafing small villages. I hear whirring rotor blades slowed down to the speed of a waking nightmare. I hear the chorus to Younger than Springtime sung by Marlon Brando as candle-lit water lilies drift across a flooded arena.
Apocalypse Now folds into South Pacific and insinuates its way through Madam Butterfly. American guilt competes with blockbuster entertainment for attention. It is a conflict from which nobody emerges victorious.
Unlike those three examples, Boublil and Schonberg’s once impressive musical behemoth Miss Saigon suffers from repeated viewing. The ramping up of spectacle, orchestration and sound exposes the music and the lyrics, neither of which is particularly distinguished. There are basically two modes: loud and not quite so loud. Bombastic ballads blast us into submission while wistful songs tickle the tear ducts. The exceptions are the raucous, sexy numbers of the Engineer’s clubs in Saigon and Bangkok and the belligerent choral stomp of the Ho Chi Minh revolutionary guard, The Morning of the Dragon. The latter conveys an alarming echo of the synchronised military prancing much beloved of North Korean dictators.
It is the interpretation that keeps us watching and listening. Sooha Kim manages to convey innocence, a virginal sexuality and a naive belief that true love will triumph. It’s love at first fuck. Her range is remarkable, from the delicate top notes to the wrenching pain of her lower register (I could have done with a bit more of that).
Although Ashley Gilmour’s Chris is less impressive vocally, he has a strong-jawed presence that is neither too macho nor too wet. Both Red Concepcion’s Engineer and Ryan O’Gorman’s John offer strong support, though the former is more like a roly-poly Fagin than the vicious, lethal pimp as portrayed by Jonathan Pryce in Nicholas Hytner’s original production.
The heart of the show lies less in the tragic tale of love and separation than in the shock and awe of the staging. This is a wham-bam, pin-you-to-your-seat production with blinding lights, supercharged sound effects and, of course, the arrival of a full-grown helicopter (or something very close to it) on stage to airlift the Americans from the US Embassy in Saigon. It’s the money shot and it never fails.
The post-war mea culpa number accompanied by film of the Bui Doi – the children of liaisons between US soldiers and Vietnamese – “The living reminder of all the good we failed to do” – is industrial-strength sentimentality amounting to guilt porn. Miss Saigon is, if nothing else, a monumental feat of musical engineering.