presented by The Metropolitan Musical Theatre Company of SA (The Met) The Arts Theatre, 53 Angas Street, Adelaide
reviewed May 9, 2019
Perhaps one of the most important duties for the production team of any amateur theatre company, is choosing what show to produce; it is not usually an easy task as there is so much to consider when choosing an appropriate show. Considering this, last performed in Adelaide by an amateur company in 2011, one particular show which is seldom selected, is Miss Saigon, and for good reason: it's vastly complex and presents numerous challenges for a production company. Nonetheless, The Metropolitan Musical Theatre Company (The Met), have selected this as their May 2019 production, and for the most part, it is a great production.
With music, lyrics and book by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubill (famous also for Les Miserables), Miss Saigon is based upon Giacomo's Puccini's 1904 Madame Butterfly, and chronicles the tragic love story of Kim, a Vietnamese girl who falls in love with and marries Chris, an American G.I. They are tragically separated at the fall of Saigon, which puts their love to the ultimate test as they both seek for new meaning in their separate lives, but never give up hope of finding each other again. Nominated for numerous awards, and winning several others, Miss Saigon is Broadway's third longest-running musical, and a musical of true epic proportion.
In this production by The Met, director Ben Saunders has assembled a sufficient team of actors to make this heartbreaking story come to life.
In the lead role of Kim, an orphan girl who is forced into becoming a barmaid and prostitute, Elena Amano is well cast, albeit slightly too old for a character of only 17 years old. In such a challenging role, Amano is to be most commended for encapsulating the differing emotions Kim experiences, emotions that are both euphoric, but also heartbreaking. Amano also has excellent and powerful vocals well suited to her character, despite struggling to reach some of the higher notes on occasion. This is, however, to be expected from any amateur actress, for a musical of such epic proportion.
As Kim's lover and husband, American G.I. Christopher Scott, Jared Frost delivers a fine performance vocally, however, while performing well vocally, Frost appears to struggle at times with showing the extreme emotional turmoil and torment Chris experiences, and his chemistry with Amano is often awkward.
Elena Amano as Kim and Jared Frost as Chris. Photo supplied by The Met
As Chris' best friend and fellow G.I, John, Tom Dubois, is, predominantly suitably cast. While Dubois has soaring vocals (demonstrated well in the opening song of Act 2, Bui Doi), his mannerisms and hand movements often appear clumsy and untidy. Dubois could also benefit richly from commanding the stage more, and exuding greater confidence, to reduce this questionable characterisation.
Furthermore, as Thuy, Kim's betrothed, and Vietnamese military leader within the Communist government, Shane Huang is exceptional and his characterisation is, at appropriate times, intentionally terrifying. He conveys well Thuy's aggressive, unpredictable and radical characteristics, making him the one to fear.
Mentions must also go to Maria Gabriela Maglahus as the hardened, disillusioned Saigon stripper Gigi, and Rafael Blancia, as Kim's "bui doi" son Tam (shared role), who both portray their characters well. Maglahus has delightful vocals, and it's a shame her role is small and that the book doesn't allow for the audience to experience her talent in a large amount. She is definitely one to watch in the future, and one can only hope that we'll be seeing more of her in the months to come. Blancia is adorable, and a true joy and delight to watch, as he suitably embodies the innocence of a child, despite Tam being born during a time of turmoil.
Jared Frost as Chris, and Jemma McCulloch as Ellen. Photo supplied by The Met
However, while the preceding actors deliver fine performances, there are two actors who particularly stand out, namely Jemma McCulloch as Chris' emotionally torn and vulnerable American wife Ellen, and Omkar Nagesh as The Engineer, the sleazy and ruthless owner of the "Dreamland" club, where Kim is hired as a prostitute.
Her professional training in musical theatre clearly evident, McCulloch has beautiful powerhouse vocals and conveys well the emotional pain Ellen face as she discovers the truth about Chris' past. Her solo song, Now That I've Seen Her, is particularly poignant and allows her to fully demonstrate her vocal talents.
Reprising his role from 2011, Nagesh is superb, and it is no wonder why he was selected to play the role again. His characterisation is sublime, and he has an exceptional stage presence, commanding the stage each time with much confidence and appropriate over the top charisma; he provides much needed comic relief in this intensely emotional show. His show-stopping number towards the end of the second act, The American Dream, is a definite highlight of the show, and allows Nagesh to fully show his talent, both vocally and physically; there is just so much to love about Nagesh in this role.
Omkar Nagesh as The Engineer. Photo supplied by The Met
While the actors deserve credit for their performances, recognition for the behind the scenes skilled practitioners, is also warranted.
Choreography by Selena Britz is simple and effective, and relevant to each scene, working well within the capabilities of the ensemble. The strict and regimented choreographed movements in the military scenes are particularly interesting to watch, and Britz is to be most commended for choreographing such intricate movements.
Set design by Ben Saunders is predominantly effective and innovative but has its few flaws. For this production, the choice to replace the stage wings with flats which feature thick large pieces of bamboo and straw, reminiscent of Asian culture, is an inventive decision, as it essentially serves as a permanent reminder to the audience of the predominant location for the musical. Similarly, large set pieces that are inspired by Asian culture, feature wheels which allow for the pieces to be brought on and off stage quickly, culminating in scene changes are smooth and fast, though the hanging set piece featured in the Asking for Leave scene is distracting, as it doesn't remain stationary; more effectively utilising said set pieces on wheels would help to reduce this problem. In addition, while detailed multimedia backdrops projected onto the bare cyc wall reinforced locations and mood, the plain white colour of said wall was far too bare and distracting when not in use, and could have been concealed more effectively through the use of black curtains or backdrops. Similarly, while good, the multimedia money backdrop used in the American Dream scene, is unnecessary, and more effective use of physical money, could achieve the same effect.
This scene could also further be improved by more effective use of red blue and white lightning (lighting design by Jason Groves). Nonetheless, Groves' lighting design is still reasonably substantial and relevant to appropriate scenes, although the Kim's Nightmare scene could benefit from Thuy having a brighter follow spot directed at him, and the use of neutral lighting could reduce the overpowering white colour of the cyc wall, if a curtain is not possible to conceal this wall.
However, the most important aspect of any musical is the orchestra. Under the exceptional direction of Jillian Gulliver, the 15 piece orchestra for this production, is adequate and sufficient. Gulliver is to be most commended for directing her orchestra in navigating a score which is rather complex and challenging, with the orchestra only pausing for a break in the score for the intermission, after the running time of 80 minutes for the first act.
While sound operation by Martin Gilbert, and designed by Tim Freedman from Allpro Audio, amplified this orchestra well, it is disappointing that the sound between the orchestra and the actors was imbalanced on opening night, with the actors requiring significant amplification, meaning that their dialogue and vocals weren't as powerful as they should have been. In particular, the actors in the ensemble during the military scenes required significant amplification, as the scene is not as powerful without amplification. In much the same way, during Kim's Nightmare, Huang's (Thuy's) microphone could benefit from a much greater volume, to make him sound more terrifying.
Finally, mention must be made of the helicopter effect featured in the Fall of Saigon scene. For this production, the scene is very innovative, and while simple, it is most effective.
It is definitely an unreasonable ask to have an amateur company attempt to replicate the professional production of Miss Saigon. This is simply impossible to achieve, as professional productions have a budget that significantly exceeds that of any amateur theatre company, and it's simply not a feasible ask to see a production of the same quality and one on the same scale. However, The Met have used the budget and resources available to them to produce this production of Miss Saigon, and while there are some minor flaws, their production makes for a great night out at the theatre.The Heat is on in Saigon, but it is also definitely on in The Arts Theatre, so come in from the cold, and enjoy a night of good community theatre. There are only a few shows left, and tickets are selling rapidly. It's time to prepare the helicopter.