Review by Garry West
LES Miserable’s and Phantom set a new standard in spectacle for Ballarat theatre goers I am delighted to report BLOC music theatre’s production of Miss Saigon continues this crest of a wave for local amateur shows when the only thing amateur is that the cast don’t get paid. BLOC’S local cast and crew are truly outstanding in Miss Saigon giving you a real theatrical experience; based on an adaptation of Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly, by the writers behind Les Miserables. Reframing Puccini’s story by setting it during the Vietnam War, Miss Saigon becomes a powerful and poignant tale of love in a war-torn country. Set between 1975 and 1978. It tells the story of a romance between Chris, an American Marine serving on the eve of the city’s fall to the Communist forces and Kim, a young Vietnamese woman orphaned by the war and forced to work in a Saigon night club/ brothel. The two have a reluctant sexual encounter, but end up falling in love despite their initial apprehension. Separated from Kim in the chaos of the American evacuation, Chris is forced to return to the United States and during the next three years the two struggle to deal with the emotional aftermath of their affair. Simultaneously the plot follows the adventures of the Engineer, a Vietnamese pimp who is also Kim’s boss. The Engineer dreams of moving to the United States and living the American dream, but after the war ends, his ambitions are crushed under Vietnam’s new Communist government. The Engineer, Kim, and her child Tam (fathered by Chris) eventually escape as “boat people” to Thailand, where they are forced into their former pimp/ prostitute roles to survive. Chris, now married to an American woman named Ellen, learns of Kim’s survival and Tam’s existence through his former army friend John. Reunited briefly in Bangkok, Kim finds that her lover now has another wife and takes matters into her own hands to ensure a better life for her two-year old son with his father in America. While the scenario is a grim one, the music and surging choruses give Miss Saigon a vitality and emotional depth rarely seen on any stage. Of the leading players The Engineer is the best character in Miss Saigon. He’s one of those weaselly “survivor” characters you can’t help but like. Not really part of the story and yet constantly inserting himself into it, the Engineer is quite a strange role, really. Stephen Armati approaches it with intelligence and charm and his performance is utterly entertaining. As Chris, the naive GI, who gets into trouble and later has to tell his wife about it, Andrew McCalman is at his best here with powerful songs and a charismatic performance. Vanessa Belsar as Kim, has a much bigger challenge, her character goes through relentless, escalating trauma as the story progresses. She wrings every drop of pathos from the story. Her acting and vocals are outstanding, Vanessa is in her first major role outside of dancing and delivers a performance equal to the very best. Keith McNamara plays Thuy, a nasty piece of work. He handles it well and also delivers great vocals. As Chris’s army buddy John, Brendan Smart brings conviction to the stage whenever he appears especially in the Bui Doi’ number along with the superb male chorus. Emma Rix is formidable in the tricky role of Chris’s American wife, Ellen and Jodi Toering makes a great impact in the minor role of GiGi. Supported by an overall chorus “to die for” superb costumes, an intriguing set, including the famous helicopter landing and departure, tight choreography and lighting equal to the occasion, and you have a show full of class, and I haven’t even mentioned the magnificent songs, which are perfectly written for this story. Miss Saigon has it all. Congratulations to Director Stephen O’Neil who has arranged a series of striking tableau that often tells more of the story than the show’s lyrics do. Musical Director and Choral Director Gareth Grainger is at his best along with Choreographer Kat Armati, Lighting by Mystic Entertainmenz, a brilliant set by Nathan Weyers, Costumes by Mel Buckingham and the entire BLOC production company of talented locals who have really delivered with this one. Well done BLOC for giving Ballarat a theatrical experience that will stay with us for years to come. Seats are still available for the final five performances at Her Majesty’s theatre.