The heat is off in Saigon

miss saigon palace manchester

I’m old. I saw the original London production of Miss Saigon way, way back in 1989 – September 23rd, 1989, in fact – on the first Saturday matinee after it opened. Yes, I saw Jonathan Pryce, and yes, I saw (and slightly winced at) the eye makeup (not to mention at the yellowface elsewhere in the cast, because Pryce wasn’t the only white actor cast as a Vietnamese character) – and yes, I loved it. Even at not-quite-seventeen I could pick all kinds of holes in it, but it blew me away. I loved the music, I loved Nicholas Hytner‘s production, and Lea Salonga gave what is still just about as good a performance as I’ve ever seen.

From there to here is quite a distance, and in more ways than one. I’m older, the show is older, I haven’t seen it “live” since a return visit a few years into the original London run, and the world in general – most of it, anyway – is at least a little bit more woke when it comes to issues of postcolonialism and representation and all the rest of it than it was three decades ago. It still offers a rather uneasy Western view of south-east Asia – far more uneasy, in some ways, than something like The King and I, which is so far removed from reality that it’s probably best taken as a fairytale – and while the show’s point of view is undoubtedly that America’s involvement in Vietnam was disastrous and damaging for everybody involved, the show’s writers begin to develop a thesis about how American complacency contributed to an ongoing tragedy after the war was over and they don’t take it nearly far enough, particularly in the last third of the second act when the melodrama at the centre of the plot kicks into gear.

That plot, though, is the same as it always was: a smarter-than-it-looks rehash of Madam Butterfly in which an American GI meets and very quickly falls for a Vietnamese bar girl in the last days before the fall of Saigon; he fails to get her out with him when he’s forced to evacuate, and when, years later, he finds out she’s survived and has a child, he and his new American wife offer to support the child but refuse to give him a home in America, with tragic consequences. Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr., the show’s original librettists, find more light and shade than you’d expect within this scenario (this production credits “additional lyrics”, none of which are an improvement over the originals, to Michael Mahler), although they possibly still don’t find quite enough, and while some of Claude-Michel Schönberg‘s music is bombastic and thuddingly banal, some of it is very lovely indeed. It’s always been to the show’s great credit that despite some gratuitously Hallmark-card lyrics, the Vietnamese heroine, Kim, is portrayed as a woman of immense strength and courage rather than as a lovelorn sap. It’s equally to the show’s credit that Chris, the Pinkerton figure, isn’t simply a colonial shit or a stereotypical Ugly American, and that Ellen, his American wife, is never portrayed as a villain either – Chris suffers as a result of leaving Kim in Vietnam, and Ellen is perfectly willing to help support a child she didn’t know about. That their support – or rather, their western complacency – imposes boundaries may be the engine that drives the melodrama towards the climax of the second act, but the writing isn’t as one-dimensional as it could have been. There are shades of grey here, and an understanding that well-meaning people sometimes do not behave well when confronted with complex moral decisions. In this kind of steamroller of a blockbuster musical, those shades of grey are relatively rare.

Those shades of grey, though, don’t entirely survive intact in the production currently playing in Manchester, which is the touring iteration of the revival that was recently seen in the West End and on Broadway (and on DVD). As directed – mostly in the sense of directing traffic – by Laurence Connor, this is a very efficient reading of the show: the big moments are all present and correct, including the (admittedly still dazzling) helicopter effect in the Fall of Saigon scene, and the actors all emote the hell out of their big numbers, and there is absolutely no depth or complexity in almost all of the performances. It’s loud and crass and sometimes even slightly distasteful in a way the original production never was (yes, even despite the original production’s yellowface): Nicholas Hytner’s original production, even years into the run with the umpteenth replacement cast, told a story about the tragic aftermath of the Vietnam war, whereas this production, despite being smaller in scale and budget, takes the tragic aftermath of the Vietnam war and makes a spectacle out of it. There’s a giant statue of Ho Chi Minh, a Saigon bar, various interiors, a dragon dance, twirling ribbons, projected film of orphaned American-Vietnamese children, a Cadillac, a shiny chrome representation of the head of the Statue of Liberty, and a more-or-less life-size (model) helicopter that lands on the stage – but there’s no emotional content at all, just a careful facsimile of it. It’s not that any of the performances are bad, exactly – indeed, this production is, by and large, very, very well-sung. It’s that every last scrap of subtlety appears to have been ironed out of a piece that, while more subtle than it could have been, was never that subtle to begin with. How unsubtle is it? There’s more than one instance in which a character stands/kneels centre stage, face contorted in a careful imitation of anguish, and screams “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”. That did not happen – and I mean did not happen, not once – in the original production.

As for individual performances, they’re mostly, well… accurate. Everybody hits their notes and their marks, and nearly everybody seems completely devoid of inner life. There are two honourable exceptions: Vinny Coyle’s Chris, who sings the role very well indeed and works strenuously to put back some of the shades of subtlety that have largely been bleached – and I chose that word very carefully – out of this production, and Red Concepción as the Engineer, the Pandarus-like pimp whose bar/whorehouse is the venue for Kim and Chris’s first meeting, and whose machinations get Kim and her child out of Vietnam at the end of the first act. Concepción’s Engineer is gleefully, bracingly nasty, sung with show-stopping fervour, and somehow believably real in a way that eludes nearly everyone else.  Coyle, incidentally, is an understudy, though you’d never have guessed, and his appearance in the role was not announced in the theatre before the performance, which is inexcusable. As Kim, Sooha Kim has a lovely voice, but doesn’t manage to transcend the production’s essential hollowness. And it’s a tiny role, but Acielle Santos’s Gigi – the prostitute who sings The Movie in my Mind, which used to be my favourite song in the score before it was disembowelled by this production’s lyric rewrites – exemplifies the problem with most of the performances here: she has a great voice, and she sings the song very well indeed, but the emotions are all on the surface. She sobs through it, ends the number in tears, and the moment is far more powerful (as, in the theatre, many moments are more powerful) if the performer doesn’t emote the song to death. In the original cast – you can even hear this on the original London cast recording – Isay Alvarez brought a devastating, absolutely haunting dignity to the song; it was very moving indeed, but it was moving because it was performed with restraint. In this production, the actress weeps all the way through the song’s climax – and because she weeps, we don’t.

Elsewhere, Connor repeats Hytner’s one big misstep, and shows a slide-show of real Vietnamese orphans during the act two opener, a (terrible) song called Bui-doi, which is basically a (God help us) raise-the-roof showstopper about mixed-race orphans trapped in a society where they’re largely shunned. In Hytner’s production this was crass, but there was at least a genuine emotional impulse behind the song (and Peter Polycarpou gave a very, very good performance indeed as the ex-solder who sings it); here there isn’t, which means the plight of these poor children merely becomes set-dressing in an expensive western theatrical spectacle, and it’s spectacularly tasteless.

The show itself, though, is solid enough – even given that the writing is far from unimpeachable – that it works on some level even in less than ideal circumstances. In many ways, this touring production is impressive: as I said, it’s sung very well indeed. The orchestrations are reduced, but reduced carefully; fifteen musicians are never going to sound like the original production’s twenty-four, and the lack of a larger string section contributes significantly to the near-complete absence in this production of the fine emotional shading that made the original so powerful. The band never sounds bad, but they never sound as good either; this is a show that really needs a big, lush sound, so it’s inevitably diminished by the smaller orchestra. The special effects are terrific, particularly in a touring production – the helicopter effect is superb (technology can do things now that just were not possible in 1989) – but when this story, the most nakedly human and intimate of all the big 1980s megamusicals, becomes a show dominated by special effects, it’s a problem. The effects were immense in 1989 too, but you walked out of the theatre remembering Lea Salonga and Simon Bowman, not the helicopter and the Ho Chi Minh statue. Now, because the performances are mostly painted with such a broad emotional brush, you barely remember the people at all, and the result is a show that’s impressive to look at but emotionally empty. Everybody works hard, but this Miss Saigon, in the end, is the equivalent of watching a hurriedly-made Saturday morning cartoon version of something that was originally written for grown-ups.

Ready for her close-up

sb ria jones

She’s ba-ack!

From Glenn Close’s understudy to headline attraction in her own right, Ria Jones‘s (very belated) big break is an irresistible showbiz-dream-come-true story. She’s always been wonderful – twenty-five years ago, she was a thrillingly-sung Fantine in the first Manchester run of Les Misérables, twenty-one years ago she was flawless in the two leading roles in the chamber musical Romance/Romance at the Bridewell, and she’s toured all over the place and done concerts with just about everyone – but she’s always been one of those people who should be a Great Big Star, and somehow isn’t.

Until now. This time, thanks to the spectacular word-of-mouth that followed the four performances last year when she stood in for an indisposed Glenn Close in a revival of Sunset Boulevard that had basically been packaged and marketed as The Glenn Close Show, it’s Jones’s name above the title on the posters. This production, too, is being sold around the star – and this year’s star is last year’s understudy (which must feel especially sweet given that Jones, in fact, was the first person ever to sing the role of Norma Desmond in a workshop a few years before the original London production). The show itself is what it always was – some good stuff, a lot of musical wallpaper, some real clunkers among the lyrics, and overall a very imperfect adaptation of a more-or-less-perfect film. While the writing isn’t unimpeachable, though, it’s undeniably a great star vehicle. Jones, STARRING as opposed to playing the lead, is superb as Norma Desmond, the forgotten silent movie star whose entanglement with a young writer ends very, very messily indeed; these cut-price touring productions are often faintly dismal affairs, but the production director Nikolai Foster has built around his star is far better than anyone had any right to expect, and in several respects it’s streets ahead of both Lonny Price‘s concert(ish) staging last year and Trevor Nunn‘s overblown original at the Adelphi.

In terms of her strengths in the role, Jones is just about the polar opposite of Glenn Close, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Close’s power in the role came from her immense charisma: she’s a very good actress, but she’s also the kind of Great Big Movie Star whose effortless presence commands an audience’s attention. Her singing, on the other hand, is not her strongest suit – she got away with it, but that’s just about the best you can give her. Jones, on the other hand, is a good actress and a magnificent singer, but she doesn’t bring that kind of movie-star magnetism to the table. Strangely, that’s a combination that turns out to work very well for this role: some of Jones’s predecessors, including Close, were so loudly FABULOUS! that it was difficult to see why Norma Desmond had been forgotten by the public (it’s not as if the transition from silent to talkies was impossible to negotiate: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard all managed it). Jones avoids the trap (hi, Betty Buckley!) of getting too crazy too quickly, giving us a carefully-mapped descent into madness. She’s absolutely believable as a lonely, lovelorn woman, she sings the living hell out of Norma’s big numbers, and she manages to put her own spin on that monologue in the final scene (and a very smart spin it is too – when her Norma announces that she can’t go on with the scene because she’s too happy, Jones’s Norma genuinely is. She’s completely out to lunch, of course, but she’s happy, not suicidal, because her grip on reality has finally completely snapped). It’s not necessarily the most subtle account of the role you’ll ever see (and I suppose I might mention here that my favourite Norma, as much as I loved Close last year, Jones in this, and Elaine Paige in the original production, is probably Rita Moreno, who delivered an astonishing acting performance and, like Close, just about got away with the demands of the score), but that final scene still raises goosebumps, and I doubt anybody has sung As If We Never Said Goodbye better than Jones sings it in this production.

Opposite her, Danny Mac is a strong Joe Gillis – and for once, in this production, it’s clear that Norma is a character in Joe’s story, rather than the other way around. He sings well, and captures the character’s corrosive self-loathing better than anyone I’ve seen since Kevin Anderson in the original London cast. Molly Lynch is a sweetly girlish Betty Schaefer, Adam Pearce is a just-creepy-enough Max, and there’s nothing to criticise in any of the ensemble performances (some of the casting is a little young, though: whoever plays Hog-Eye, the spotlight operator, needs to look as if he’s been in showbiz for a hell of a lot longer than three decades. Two-and-a-half decades ago, the actor playing the role in this production was a zygote). There’s a superbly evocative Hollywood soundstage set by Colin Richmond (who also supplies the perfectly-apt costumes), enhanced by Douglas O’Connell’s sometimes subtle, sometimes dazzling video projections. The car chase sequences, in particular, work better here than they did in either last year’s revival or the original staging, thanks to cleverly-timed use of rear-projection.

Nikolai Foster’s staging emphasises Hollywood’s artifice: because the whole production takes place on a soundstage, the detritus of moviemaking is always visible somewhere on the stage, even when we’re supposedly in Norma’s mansion. Towers become walls, Norma’s staircase splits into pieces to become other buildings in other locations, there’s usually a camera visible somewhere on the stage, and O’Connell’s projections keep reminding us of the Los Angeles that exists outside Norma’s mansion, which makes the mansion feel all the more claustrophobic. It’s all accomplished on a much smaller budget than the gargantuan, eye-popping original, but it actually makes a better case for the show than Nunn’s production did. The writing is still uneven – the strongest director couldn’t save a number as weak as The Lady’s Paying, though we’re mercifully spared the limp-wristed, lazily-stereotyped camp caricature of a performance that accompanied the song at the Coliseum last year – but the focus here is firmly on the people rather than the set, and the people are worth your attention. Granted, they’re interesting mostly because of Billy Wilder (and Ria Jones and Danny Mac) rather than Lloyd Webber, Christopher Hampton and Don Black, but in a Lloyd Webber show you take what you can get. It’s a pity there are only sixteen musicians in the pit – this music really needs a big string section, and it doesn’t get one here, which means the instrumental passages sound anaemic – but that’s really the only major criticism. It may not have happened without the publicity generated when Jones stood in for Glenn Close last year, but this, it turns out, is a very, very fine revival indeed.

Oh yes – before I finish, a shout out to the front-of-house staff at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, and particularly to the three of you who spent the last fifteen minutes of Act One during Wednesday’s matinee holding a conversation in the aisle right behind the back row of the dress circle. It’s not like the customer experience in this venue is ever good – but my expectations are very low indeed, and you surpassed them. Well done.

wonder?land

wonderdotland

“To give music an identity in the modern musical is… some would say suicidal [laughs], but I couldn’t do it unless the music had that real sense of itself.”

There should probably be some kind of law against artists using programme notes to make any kind of grand statement about the genre they’re working in. It’s usually not a good idea. That’s Damon Albarn, of Blur and Gorillaz fame, talking about his new musical wonder.land – wonder-dot-land – which opens at the Palace Theatre in Manchester this week as the centrepiece of the 2015 Manchester International Festival. It’s an ambitious show, and he’s written, with librettist Moira Buffini, a very ambitious score. Unfortunately it doesn’t work – at all – and the most central problem with his contribution is that he seems somehow afraid of letting his music function as the score of a traditional musical.

That’s not to say there’s nothing worthwhile about the production, but it’s one of those frustrating evenings where everybody involved has a lot of great ideas which never quite come together. A present-day sort-of-retelling of Alice in Wonderland in which the ‘rabbit hole’ is the screen of a smartphone is a clever (albeit obvious) concept, and making ‘Alice’ and the other characters in Wonderland avatars in an online game is a logical next step. Making a phone screen the portal to a more attractive world opens the door for a ‘real-life’ parallel story in which an unhappy teenager simultaneously is bullied online and uses her online world to escape her bullies. And showing Aly, the central character, create an idealised version of herself as her avatar in an online game is as good a beginning as any for a plot that’s mostly about coming to terms with who you really are.

By themselves, though, ideas aren’t enough, and unfortunately wonder.land plays as if the writers had a long brainstorming session and then just took the Microsoft OneNote files that came from it and splattered them all over the stage. Albarn talks in the programme about giving his music a real sense of itself, but in its present state the score is meandering and unfocused. A lot of his music is attractive, and a lot of it is interesting, but it’s maddeningly unstructured and rather too pretentious for its own good, apart from one sequence which is apparently supposed to be a Victorian music-hall pastiche but which sounds more like a speed-fuelled gallop through the chorus of ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’. The show is a sort of continuous tapestry of song, underscoring, and dialogue, but the fragments of music rarely coalesce into a satisfying musical number. Buffini’s libretto doesn’t help, either – she and Albarn seem to have excused themselves from making the lyrics sit properly on the music, to the point where there are awkwardly mis-stressed syllables in nearly every line. Worse, her libretto is repetitive; in the (relatively few) musical sequences that are more than mere fragments (a duet for Aly’s estranged parents, Aly’s song to her baby brother, the mad hatter’s tea party sequence, the headmistress/Red Queen’s introduction) you invariably get the point within the first twenty seconds, and then Buffini simply has the character repeat it over and over and over and over again until the scene changes. It doesn’t make for exciting drama; a lot of the time, it isn’t even particularly involving.

The physical presentation, on the other hand, is a knockout. Director Rufus Norris and choreographer Javier de Frutos conjure a fluid, sometimes thrilling staging that moves seamlessly back and forth between Aly’s black-and-white real world and the colourful, surreal gamescape of wonder.land, rendered spectacularly in Rae Smith’s set and 59 Productions’ extraordinary projections. A second-act set-piece involving a zombie-killing computer game is brilliantly realised; elsewhere, wonder.land’s magical garden is as visually fascinating as Buffini’s libretto is dull, and the monochrome tower blocks, bus stops and classrooms that form the backdrop of Aly’s non-virtual real life have a strange, forbidding beauty about them. de Frutos’s choreography neatly delineates which characters are human or computer-generated, but the oddly fragmented score does not leave him many opportunities for dance, as opposed to musical staging. His work is terrific – he even finds an odd poetry in the tired shuffling of a bus queue – but you won’t find any showstopping production numbers here.

And that, actually, points to the show’s basic problem. By allowing the writing to remain so frustratingly unfocused, Albarn and Buffini short-change the cast, none of whom are given enough to do. As the Cheshire Cat, Hal Fowler stalks lasciviously through the action singing the word ‘fabulous’ a lot, but whatever significance he’s supposed to have remains elusive because the musical material he’s given never adds up to any kind of coherent statement. Rosalie Craig’s blonde bombshell of an avatar is a brilliant performance, as far as it goes – her timing, her un-human movement, her unnerving mimicry of the human she’s supposed to reflect are all beyond criticism, but she’s hamstrung by a libretto that gives her too little to play, and by a score that gives her too little to sing. Lois Chimimba’s Aly should be a far more touching figure than she is, and it’s not Ms. Chimimba’s fault: she does everything superbly well, but the writers give her a string of moody-inner-city-teenager clichés rather than an actual character. The most successful performance comes from Anna Francolini as the mean, teenager-hating headmistress Ms. Manxome – Buffini even gives her a couple of jokes that land – but she, too, is held back by the formless writing. Dressed and wigged as a more uptight version of Cruella de Vil (albeit without the penchant for fur), Ms. Francolini launches into her big introductory patter-song with lip-smacking relish – but the song just peters out instead of building to the kind of showstopping conclusion it needs, and the actress is left stranded without the tools she needs to make her character make sense.

What’s missing from the writing, simply, is structure, coupled with a shot of good old-fashioned showbiz pizazz. Albarn is more than capable of composing a memorable song – there are at least half a dozen on every Blur album. Here, though, he and Buffini have allowed themselves to lose focus, and they seem to be more interested in Making Art than in telling their story, defining their characters, or entertaining the audience. As it stands, every single character needs further development, and the music would almost certainly land better if it was broken up into a more defined series of musical numbers. There’s nothing wrong with allowing a song to build to a big finish, ending on a button, and allowing the audience to applaud, and wonder.land desperately needs the infusion of energy that comes when an audience applauds a showstopping number. There is a lot of talent on display on the Palace’s stage – including Albarn and Buffini, who have both done much better work than this – but too often, the show’s heart is as elusive as the White Rabbit Alice spends half the evening chasing. The visuals are great, but they alone are not enough: in the hiatus between the Manchester run and the show’s reopening at the National in late November, Albarn and Buffini need to go back to the drawing-board, sort through the ideas from their (apparently very productive) initial brainstorming session, cut out everything in the libretto and score that wastes time or repeats information we already have, and find some actual characters for their cast to play.

Oh yes, one more thing: a big thank you to the front-of-house staff at the Palace Theatre for letting the show start ten minutes late on Wednesday night and then letting the interval overrun by five minutes. Public transport in Greater Manchester shuts down way earlier than it ought to given that this is the country’s second-largest urban area, and some of us had buses to catch; to where I live, those fifteen wasted minutes were the difference between getting home in under an an hour and getting home after midnight.