4 Hot MISS SAIGON: 25th ANNIVERSARY (2016) veers away from the usual experience of watching a live performance on screen by giving a closer look at its characters and their world. It is arguably a first of its kind, and fondness may depend on one's familiarity and expectations.
If you examine closely, the central character in Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s MISS SAIGON is one lucky lady. In a world torn apart by war and filth, Kim has both worlds on their knees before her. On the one side, she has Chris, the American G.I. who has fallen madly in love with her and takes her hand in a flash. On the other, she has Thuy, Kim’s cousin and betrothed, to whom Kim’s parents promised her when the two were thirteen. Thuy may seem like an aching loser in the first few scenes of Act 1, and comparably inferior to the blonde American G.I., but he soon becomes an officer of the new Vietnamese government, gaining power and a name; arguably better than his counterpart Chris. But Kim seems to blindly follow her heart than her luck. She is a wife, and a mother, and like Puccini’s MADAME BUTTERFLY, these make her willingly choose her own funeral.
MISS SAIGON: 25TH ANNIVERSARY (2016) seems to have addressed the post-colonial criticism that it gathered when it first ran in 1989. Here, both Vietnamese and Americans suffer as they pay a price, however in varying conditions. Even through its cinematic photography, one isn’t less desaturated than the other. Everything is well-conceived and visually balanced. And though it still retains its themes on blind post-colonial hopes and dreams, this one carefully balances the consequences for its two separate worlds. It somehow reminds me of way the Arthur Laurents evened out the lives of the Sharks and the Jets in his WEST SIDE STORY.
Close to the end of the American-Vietnam War in 1975, 17-year-old Kim flees to Saigon and finds herself working as a bargirl in one of the capital’s popular go-go bar, Dreamland. There she meets Chris, an American G.I., and in a flash, they fall madly in love. The following morning, they get married in a private ceremony. However, unbeknownst to Chris, Kim has been betrothed to her cousin Thuy, and the latter crashes the wedding party to claim his bride. Chris and Kim gets separated following the attack of the new Vietnamese government. Chris is forced to flee for the US, consequently leaving Kim behind amidst the chaos of war.
Flash forward to 1978, Chris receives news about Kim, who is now a refugee and a bargirl in Bangkok, and with a son. He and his wife Ellen fly to Bangkok to discuss with Kim how they could support them. But love-sick Kim, who is now a mother, has other plans for herself and for her Tam.
Lawrence Connor’s stage direction for MISS SAIGON: 25TH ANNIVERSARY brims with characterization and depth through the lens of director Brett Sullivan. He transposes the live performance into a film, and visually reconstructs the musical for the screen with surprising re-imaginations. Though this new production is a notch darker, it still maintains its menacing appeal without veering away from its original themes of love, war and cruel melodrama. It comes with incredible performances from its main cast, but somehow drags in the middle of the second act (I’m blaming the running-time). But Cameron Macintosh’s final encore, which picks up the languid rising action, is a treat to wait for.
I think that this form is more of a re-invention for Theater-in-Film. Making it look like a movie shot in a sound stage rather than an obvious live recording of a gala performance, somewhat works. Though some purists may differ. See, the audiences in the theater are somewhat distanced, save for the occasional applauses and cheers after every number. The shots and frames are too close, you’d seldom see the edge of the stage, nor it’s lights and amazing sets. For something that was shot with a live audience, this one seems to vary its center, dismissing the concept of the theater’s fourth wall and the abundantly meaningful space between the world of Saigon and the audiences.
This consequently banishes the possible charm of seeing a delighted crowd in a live performance, and missing the incredible theatrical space we normally see in cinematic forms like these. This one is more a movie than a show. Consequently, we become mere voyeurs in Kim’s tragic world, rather than the usual spectators gapped by the traditional concept of theatrical space. As what I’ve said, that being good or bad is the verdict of taste. Though I have to admit, that this is something new, and the initiative to present a newer perspective for a stage musical is something worth giving a chance.
Despite these, Sullivan compensates the work with more faces, newer perspectives and fresher action-reactions. The film draws us closer to Kim’s world through startling close-ups and significant mise en scenes. The scenes are so close, some even use insignificant stage props as foregrounds. If you know when and where to look, you’ll suddenly find yourself inside the helicopter. The cinematography is gravely desaturated. It dismisses the usual color of live theater as it coats the scenes with an unsentimental hue, ultimately painting a tragic portrait of a world at war. Its cameras pan across the characters, rather than the stage and sets. It is so in-your-face, unapologetic and nostalgic, that it eventually pulls us back to Saigon in ’75.
Along these, Sullivan also sews impressive continuities within and between scenes with his remarkable editing. These, I admit, we seldom see in forms like these. He swishes his frames between characters and cross-dissolves with considerable tact. This makes the narrative compellingly comprehensive, and honestly cinematic. However, it is fiendishly untheatrical. See, the edits and frames limit us from seeing the entirety of Totie Driver and Matt Kinley’s phenomenal sets, that they become just mere backgrounds (and foregrounds), for the characters. But then again, that’s just me.
Eva Noblezada plays Kim with mesmerizing charm. She looks young and sincerely innocent. Her singing voice belts with considerable control – one that is expected of Kims. However, as Kim transforms, Noblezada seems to sustain her initial persona. This consequently makes her look more achingly naive and blisteringly underdeveloped in the heavier scenes when she gets up to fight for her son’s life. Jon Jon Briones offers a more mischievous, menacing and sinister Engineer, which gives this production a newer look at war, its people and the self. Worthy to mention is his wickedly entertaining rendition of The American Dream. Here, Briones brims with devilish charm as he builds up the song to an almost-deliriously-hallucinated chant.
Alistair Brammer as Chris is surprisingly young. I have always seen Chris as the matured White Man stereotype, but Brammer brandishes this character with a youthful appeal and a dashing representation of a dream and a romance. Hugh Maynard, as John, gives such powerful energy as Chris’ best friend and confidante. His rendition of Bui-Doi on the opening of Act 2 offers a more emotional take on the song. Rachelle Ann Go is sensational as Gigi. She fiercely depicts the stereotypical Asian whore with a heart and a dream. I have always believed in her talent to sing, but never knew that she dances so well.
Korean star Hong Kwang-Ho gives a newer take on Thuy. Here, Thuy becomes more than just a composite character as Hong offers a man torn between his heart and his honor. At some point, before his death, you will feel his soul tearing apart, giving so much heart to a seemingly compassionless character. Tamsin Carroll as Ellen builds up towards the final act in her song Maybe. Here, Ellen becomes at par with her position against Kim, making the two equally important, and virtually helpless.
It is still as melodramatic as it was when it first opened on West End in ’89, but MISS SAIGON: 25TH ANNIVERSARY gives a totally different look at a familiar musical. It veers away from the usual experience of watching a live performance on screen by giving a closer look at its characters and their world. It is arguably a first of its kind, and fondness may depend on one’s familiarity and expectations. It would help if you’d prepare yourself for a film, instead of a show.
But if you have been a fan of this musical, to see this on a big screen and to give it a try is ultimately non-negotiable.
4 Stars out of 5.
MISS SAIGON: 25TH ANNIVERSARY (2016) will have a limited one-weekend-run at selected SM Cinemas nationwide from November 12 to 13, 2016. For more details, click here.