Review: Miss Saigon
Showbiz Christchurch, Saturday 28 September
Directed by Stephen Robertson
Musical Direction by Richard Marrett
Reviewed by Kate Divett, Backstage Christchurch.
Bravo, Showbiz – Miss Saigon is good. It’s really, really good.
This final show in Showbiz’ 2019 season is an absolute winner. The storyline is brutal and heart-wrenching (bring tissues – be warned), and the production requirements are epic. The challenges that are posed by Miss Saigon are well and truly met by the team who have brought it together. Bravo again!
For those unfamiliar with the context of this story – picture Vietnam in the mid-1970s, the protracted conflict between North and South (supported by international forces on both sides) is drawing to a dramatic close. Saigon is heaving with foreign (mostly American) soldiers who are being entertained by women in the local bars and clubs. These women are treated like cheap commodities, enduring unspeakable hardship. Miss Saigon follows the story of one of these women, Kim, and Chris, an American GI, and the fallout of their brief but passionate encounter.
Where to begin with the praise? Firstly, with the principal cast members. Tina Bergantinos-Panlilio (Kim) wonderfully portrays both the vulnerability of her character’s position and the underlying strength required to endure and overcome circumstances. Her voice is divine and soulful throughout. Chris (Jack Fraser) is brilliant as the disillusioned American GI who falls for Kim, bringing all his considerable vocal talents to bear in the role. Marcus Rivera (The Engineer) is sassy and clever as the opportunistic club owner – his moment in “The American Dream” was memorable. James Foster (John) drew enthusiastic and well-deserved applause from the audience after his moving performance in the opening of Act 2. Hannah Austin (Ellen) is a refreshing new local talent, who shone in Now That I’ve Seen Her. Daniel Aguilar (Thuy) was menacing as the long-promised suitor, especially in Kim’s Nightmare.
The various forms taken by the ensemble are absolutely brilliant in this show. The girls set a red-hot scene in the opening of Act One as they all compete for the business and attention of the American soldiers, under the hustling eye of The Engineer. A highlight piece for me from the whole show was the sequence during The Morning of the Dragon – stark colours contrasting with the busy colours of other scenes, and the regimented choreography, flag-waving and dragon dance were all very evocative. The crowd – including a 14-strong children’s ensemble – showing desperation to escape the failing Saigon was particularly moving.
The success of this show can also be attributed to the obvious hard work of the production team as well. The stage, sets, lighting, sound, costume, hair and makeup, and props are all on point – the enormous, shapeshifting set pieces are particularly impressive. While as stage set-up that includes a full-scale, flying helicopter will always draw gasps, I was also impressed by how little details of costume and props added to the sense of time and place. I was moved to read in the programme about how the show has been embraced by the local Christchurch Vietnamese community, and that Showbiz has also reached out to Hagar International, who work with women who are survivors of trafficking, slavery and human rights abuses.
Final praise must, of course, go to the dynamic directing duo of Stephen Robertson (Director) and Richard Marrett (Musical Director). Their vast experience and talents are on display here for all to see via their complex, masterful music and stage work, drawing the numerous pieces of the production puzzle together to tell a compelling and tragic story. For all the many successful elements that one could choose to comment on, I must mention the charming, poignant effectiveness of the smallest cast member – Tam, the 3-year-old character who was played on Saturday night by Lakshya Kumar, but has a rotating schedule of four young performers from Russley School. The content of the show is inappropriate for the most part for such a young child who is an essential character – I was transfixed and moved by how this young actor was so carefully managed during his performance by the actors on stage, very much part of the story but shielded from difficult content so wisely. Bravo to Robertson for the sensitive direction brought to bear here – the effect of this young person’s presence brought some of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the night.
Christchurch audiences should know that Miss Saigon is a modern musical masterpiece, and Showbiz is bringing its A-game to provide a phenomenal fortnight of exuberant, passionate, emotionally-rich theatre in our city. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience it.