Monday, November 14, 2016

Review of MISS SAIGON 25TH ANNIVERSARY PERFORMANCE: Poignant and Powerful

November 13, 2016



Like "Phantom of the Opera" four years ago (MY REVIEW), there is also a film showing the live recording of the special 25th Anniversary show of the successful musical "Miss Saigon" performed at Prince Edward Theater at London's West End. It was announced that this would be a very limited engagement which will only be shown in select SM cinemas on only two days -- November 12 and 13, 2016. I just had to have a full schedule on those two days so I thought I would miss it for sure. However, when free time opened up Sunday night, I made up my mind to catch the 8 pm last full show at SM San Lazaro which thankfully was one branches that showed it.

The story (loosely based on Puccini's "Madame Butterfly") is already well-known. Kim was a bar girl working for a sleazy pimp code named "The Engineer" in war-torn Saigon in 1975. On her first day at work, she was swept off her feet by the charming American GI named Chris. The love affair did not last long because the American soldiers suddenly upped and left Saigon. Three years later, Chris finds out that he actually had a child by Kim. However, by then, he was already happily married to Ellen, hence his dilemma. Kim grimly decides she needs to do whatever is necessary so Tam can go to the States with his father.

The whole film ran for a lengthy three hours. The musical play proper was only probably about a little over two hours. However, there was a 5 minute intermission between the first and second act. Then there was another 10 minute break between the play and the special program afterwards. You really had to wait those breaks out, as they did not cut them. The special program lasted about thirty minutes, and was well-worth the wait especially for its nostalgia value since it brought back members of the original 1989 London cast. 

Watching an anniversary show is tricky because you will always remember the original version. The version of the songs you have heard over and over on your CD player over the years would always be the best versions. I admit I had the order of the scenes all jumbled in my head since the last time I saw "Miss Saigon" performed live on stage was that one staged at the CCP Main Theater in 2000. That show had Lea Salonga (as Kim), Leo Valdez (as the Engineer), Will Chase (as Chris), Ron Smith (as John), Lisa Capps (as Ellen), Robert Sena (as Thuy) and Isay Alvarez (as Gigi).

I thoroughly enjoyed that the whole film was subtitled so I can understand all the lines being delivered (especially those by the Engineer and Thuy), and more importantly, I can sing along to the songs as they were being sung! You do not forget you are watching a live play because the mics taped on the actors forehead were clearly visible and the songs were interrupted by audience applause.

There were different lyrics from those that I remember. In "The Movie in My Mind," Gone were the whimsy lyrics: "He takes me to New York and gives me dollar bills. Our children laugh all day, and eat too much ice cream, and life is but a dream." It now becomes a more serious "He takes me to a place where I don't have to dance. Our children laugh all day, but all that I went through won't make my dream come true." 

The lyrics of the song "Please" had evolved into another song entitled "Too Much for One Heart" but with the same pretty melody. Ellen gets to sing a new song venting out her confused thoughts after her confrontation scene with Kim in Act 2, entitled "Maybe", replacing "Her or Me" from the original show".

I remember the stage version of "Miss Saigon" to be a very busy stage most of the time with so many things happening at the simultaneously. Energetic crowd scenes like "The Heat is On in Saigon" or "Fall of Saigon," and the marching dance in "Morning of the Dragon" lose a little something in the film version, yet gain some extra emotional nuance. Watching a play on film is a different experience because it focuses our attention on the central character of the scene only, and not the extra rich details around them. You can see in more detail the emotion of the actors' faces, their tears as they fall down their cheeks, their eyes as they connect with their co-actors. 

The cast in the film was the cast of the West End Revival Cast of 2014. Jon Jon Briones was an electrifying Engineer with all his little quirky mannerisms and facial expressions captured perfectly on screen. Eva Noblezada's Kim practically grew up on that stage with her maturing look and vocal quality, so poignantly yet powerfully portrayed by this new young actress. Rachelle Ann Go's vocals as Gigi was so strong, you'd wish she had more songs to sing aside from "Movie on My Mind". 

Alistair Brammer's portrayal of Chris was earnest and he sang great, though his chemistry with Noblezada's Kim was not instant nor electric. Hugh Maynard was John, with his soulful take on "Bui Doi" song really soaring. Tamsin Carroll was Ellen, a role that was truly difficult to like, and that new song did not make her more likable. Kwang-Ho Hong was Thuy, a character I got to understand more in this film version. The boy who played Tam, though cute, did not look Amerasian and had no facial expression at all, a fact very visible in the closeups of the film version.

The concert part of the show was opened by Lea Salonga who led the cast in singing "This is the Hour". I caught the face of the late Junix Inocian among the singers onstage. Then, she sang "The Movie in My Mind" with Rachelle Ann Go, both singers giving this song some vocal flourishes not heard when sung in the musical. Too bad that the original Gigi Isay Alvarez did not join them in that number. 

Salonga then called her first Chris Simon Bowman to sing "Last Night of the World" with her. They did the scene with all the kissing we saw in the play, which delighted the audience. They were later joined by Noblezada and Brammer mid-song. When they switched partners, Salonga smooched with a visibly surprised Brammer -- which was quite amusing. Bowman was a gentleman with the much younger Noblezada, limiting himself to chaste hugs.

A tuktuk came out onstage and revealed that it contained Jonathan Pryce and he proceeded to perform "American Dream"! Pryce is now pushing 70 so he was not as sprightly as before, but the sleazy vocal nuances of the character were all there, while making fun of his age. He was joined mid-song by the present Engineer Briones, showing the distinction when an Asian plays this character. When the limo came out, it contained the triumvirate of Cameron Mackintosh, Alain Boublil and Claude Michel Schoenberg! After the number, the power trio congratulated themselves as well as the cast and crew of the show over the years. The show ended with champagne and fireworks amid the enthusiastic applause of an appreciative fan audience. 

For most of us, this film would be the only way we can ever watch a performance of "Miss Saigon" and hear all those long-beloved songs sung in their proper context in the story. The production aspects were seamless, with effective direction and editing of images. The quality of the print looked a bit grainy where I watched, but this might be a problem with the cinema production rather than the print itself. This is a must-watch for fans of Lea Salonga, Rachelle Ann Go and the other Filipino artists that this show had catapulted into the limelight, as well as fans of musical theater in general. 9/10.


6 comments:

  1. Hi! This is a nice review. I am glad that they decided to film the 25th anniversary gala and made it available to the Philippines. We share the same thoughts :) except on Ellen's new song. For me, it made her more likeable because "Maybe" expresses her willingness to let go of Chris even if it pains her so much. And well.. that, for me, is a great form of love.

    Unlike with the previous song, which only expresses herself being threatened by the existence of Kim. I think I was able to understand now Ellen's side of the story.

    I have to say, I liked the melody of "Now that I've seen her" more. But i guess.. that's how it really is when you listened to a new song.;)

    In the end, i think Ellen will always appear as the "other woman" in the story, despite of her being the real wife.. simply because the story focuses on Kim. Haha so.. yah.. no one's gonna like Ellen at all. =))

    Oh I too liked how they made the little change on "the movie in my mind". I also liked how John did not come with Chris during the confrontation scene with Ellen. It made their scene more emotional because it is just the two of them.

    Overall, this is an awesome review :) have a great day!

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  2. Fred. I just read Elizabeth's post on difficult questions & moral dilemmas. And here I am reading your post on the moral dilemma of Chris!!

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  3. I couldn't forget "Miss Saigon". It is because it starred my favorite local singer Leah Saloga, but because the musical live stage show which featured the person who took the role of the Engineer, Leo Valdez is my high school classmate. He's a good singer. I know he could make it someday for his name. And he did it.

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  4. I've watched Miss Saigon before and this is a nice tribute to its legacy. This is really worth watching.

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  5. Quite an emotional tale. The individuals trapped in circumstances...

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  6. Such a nice movie.. Happy 25th anniversary.. WOuld like to watch Miss Saigon..

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