Theatre Now Review: Miss Saigon

There aren’t many musicals like Miss Saigon. Sure, it’s a love story, and has some pretty catchy songs. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a show of epic proportions, spanning continents, years and cultures. And this particular production by Packemin Productions does it justice.

The Vietnam War has decimated Saigon. American soldiers run wild, frolicking in and out of brothels teeming with Vietnamese girls looking for a way out of their miserable existence. Chris is one such solider, and Kim is one such girl. They fall in love, but are forced apart amidst the chaos.

It’s a heart wrenching, tragic story of love against all odds, as is performed skilfully by lead performers Haydan Hawkins and Vivien Emsworth. Both bring great emotion to their roles, performing with an impressive maturity. It’s not Emsworth’s first time performing Kim, and it shows. She’s intimate with the role and her powerhouse voice navigates the complex rollercoaster of Kim’s emotions with ease. Hawkins was a little slower to shrug off those opening night jitters, but should settle into his performance as the run progresses.

Marcus Rivera is The Engineer. Like Emsworth, this is a role he’s played before. Rivera’s natural charm and showmanship make him a perfect fit for the greedy, cruel but endlessly endearing pimp. His energy on stage is unrelenting, but his tendency to ad lib could be worth reigning in. The Engineer opens with show, introducing us to the cesspit that is Saigon. Scantily-clad girls and horny soldiers swarm the stage, and Rivera and the ensemble seemed to let the nerves dictate the pace. As a result, this opening sequence lost clarity and set the tone for the rest of the show. This should settle though, as the run moves forward.

Ashleigh Taylor makes a couple of small but hugely memorable appearances as Ellen. Her voice soars through the space, ripping holes in our hearts. It’s clear she knows what she’s doing. Every gesture, every note is placed perfectly to great effect. Hopefully Ellen’s relationship with Chris continues to develop as the actors find their collective groove.

Worth mentioning are Kyle Sapsford as Chris’s comrade John, and David Ouch as Thuy, Kim’s vindictive cousin. Sapsford handles well a difficult opening number to Act II, and Ouch has perfected the style of his role and sings it beautifully.

Choreographer Sophie Gospodarczyk utilises the large ensemble well, creating hugely effective scenes of movement and rhythm. While all dance sequences could do with some tightening from performers, the effect was not lost.

Musical Director Peter Hayward skilfully leads a rambunctious orchestra through what sounds like a difficult score. Created by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (of Les Misérables fame) the music definitely echoes those familiar tunes (“The Confrontation”, anyone?) but also holds its own.

Standout musical numbers include “Sun and Moon”, a gorgeous duet by Emsworth and Hawkins, “I Still Believe”, an equally beautiful duet from Emsworth and Taylor, and “Now That I’ve Seen Her”, Taylor’s epic solo. On the other end of the scale, “The American Dream” from Rivera needs to be severely cut. The entire momentum of Act II comes to a standstill during this song.

Sound Designer David Grigg enables us to hear every note from the orchestra perfectly, and his sound effects that are employed throughout add another level of depth to the production.

Neil Shotter’s set is very evocative of the time and space, but is let down a little with clumsy handling in the changeovers. His helicopter is a delight, however.

Packemin Productions have yet again shown themselves as a company to be reckoned with. They’re a mostly amateur company with some cracking professional lead performers. The commitment shown by the creative team and all involved to get their productions up and running should be enough for them to vie for that coveted professional status. Alas, a little more money, not elbow grease, is what’s needed.

Miss Saigon is playing at Riverside Parramatta until 12 August.

Alana Kaye – Theatre Now