Friday, October 9, 2009

Miss Saigon

by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg; dir. Robert Jarman
Craig Wellington Productions and the Tasmanian Theatre Unit Trust
Theatre Royal, Hobart, Thursday October 8th (opening night)
Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

There’s been an awful lot of talk lately, around the town, about a helicopter.

And fair enough, too. How could the Tasmanian Theatre Unit Trust possibly follow up on the smash hit that was their inaugural production, Les Misérables, just over a year ago? Clearly, the only answer was to find a show with even more spectacular staging requirements. And it’s hard to go past helicopter-in-relatively-small-theatre when it comes to “spectacle”.

So, Miss Saigon it is.

My advice is not to get too focussed on the helicopter. I’m not saying it isn’t impressive. It is impressive (Broadway-gimmickyness notwithstanding). But, you see, if you spend too much time thinking about the helicopter, you may ignore much more important elements: primarily, the emotional and energetic commitment – both from principles and ensemble – which are matched with musical proficiency and confidence in this young cast.

Under the firm hand of Robert Jarman (ably augmented by Aaron Powell’s musical direction, Mandy Lowrie’s choreography, and indeed the rest of the production team’s contributions), this Miss Saigon is bold, decisive, and powerful.

Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical doesn’t give us much time to settle in. From curtain up we’re thrust into the love story of American GI Chris and new Vietnamese prostitute Kim, and also into a narrative of the Vietnam war: a story which assumes its audience already has a strong cultural back-story and understanding. Jarman and his company never lose this pace throughout, as event after event tumble out in song, and every single moment is deliberate. There’s no room for feebleness here: even the love story seems fuelled by a youthful, hot fury and political frustration.

Both cast and orchestra are equal to the challenge of this sweeping work, although they were sometimes let down by the insistent amplification which tended to impair diction. Amplification seems a necessary evil, to achieve balance with such a strong instrumental contribution. And yet this theatre is so intimate, and most of these performers so competent and capable of projection -- evidenced by the occasional moments when the technology failed them!

The show is notoriously awkward to cast, with its Asian setting. Largely, Jarman’s casting ignores racial demarcation (the only realistic option within Hobart’s limited bank of performers). This is just one of those things we have to agree to suspend disbelief about. But it’s such an important component of this narrative that I found myself constantly philosophising on the restrictions physicality poses on casting. Sometimes it was downright confusing, such as distinguishing whether characters were American or Vietnamese. But that’s an unwinnable battle this time.

Tess Hansen (Kim) works hard at the centre of the cast, and is supported strongly by Scott Farrow’s smooth performance as Chris, as well as by the other principles and a consistently tight and robust ensemble. Andrew Hickman warmed into his role as a rather Thénardier-ish Engineer; and Craig Wood is strong (sometimes a little too strong) as Thuy, the husband Kim’s father had intended for her. All the principles could do with a little refining, such as in their emotional transitions, but this is bound to come with the season. If the opening night audience is anything to go by, reception will be wildly appreciative. Don’t leave it til the last minute if you’re planning to go; I don’t imagine Miss Saigon will have any trouble selling out.

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