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Miss Saigon

Ah, Miss Saigon. You wonder why UK theatre puts itself through the torment of trying to entertain Britain. It has never been harder to produce theatre – let alone big musicals. 

I should start, then, by reminding everyone, including myself, that Miss Saigon first opened in 1989 and ran for “only” 10 years –it later transferred to Broadway and won multiple prizes including two Olivier and three Tony awards.

Following the dreary controversy surrounding Sheffield Theatres’ production of Miss Saigon– (one theatre company dropped the venue from its touring schedule in protest) here is the UK’s first brand-new production of the crowd-pleasing musical, with lyrics “modified in collaboration with the show’s original writers”. Fair enough. 

What’s undeniable, though, is that this bold Miss Saigon isn’t ‘deeply traumatic’ at all, it’s merely embroiled in another front of the 2023 culture war.

Indeed, a couple of the lyrics have been tweaked. Take for instance: “Why was I born of a race that only thinks of rice” becomes, “Why am I stuck in a place where they make you plant rice?” 

Anyhow. Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau, directors of the Crucible’s production of Miss Saigon, said they had taken a “new approach” which they hoped would “shift the perspective” on the show. For me, it did.

Anyway, what is the secret of its new success? Partly the fact that music and words are by the geniuses behind Les Misérables, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. 

The score is beautiful and this production packs some impressive punches. 

Making her debut, the role of Kim was Desmonda Cathabel; a ‘Stephen Sondheim Performer of the Year’ winner, who seems a remarkable find. There were moments when she moved me to tears. 

In any case, Chris Maynard gives a powerful performance as her beloved GI Chris, though fails to generate much warmth.

It was an inspired idea to relocate the story of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly to Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon, and the production superbly captures the confusion and terror of war.

In the opera, Pinkerton’s abandonment of Cio-Cio-San strikes one as heartless. But, in this version, the lovers are separated by the enforced American evacuation of Saigon in 1975. 

So much of it works. The genuinely funny and self aware young Vietnamese women working as sex workers for the American GI troops under the watch of a sardonic local pimp called The Engineer – here gender switched and played brilliantly by Joanna Ampil. She is caught between two worlds and dreams of escape to the USA. Ampil gets maximum value from her number The American Dream, the one moment in the show of razzle dazzle. 

Overall, this ‘rigorous reimagining’ leaves one admiring the technical tightrope skill of Lau and Hastie’s production, the combined saturated designs of Ben Stones and Andrezj Goulding, which bring out particularly strikingly the gaudy vulgarity and neon ugliness of Bangkok.

Anyway, for fans of revisionism, untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play moves to Young Vic in September.

Miss Saigon runs at Crucible Sheffield until 19 August.