REVIEW: Stunning musical love story from highly talented teens

Picture by Stephen Candy
Picture by Stephen Candy

Miss Saigon by Ariel Company Theatre, The Capitol, Horsham, Wednesday, March 12

Musicals can be tough to get right.

Not only do performers have to sing for sustained periods of time, but they have to balance their singing with believable acting. They also require great timing and spatial awareness, not just to maximise the power of their stage presence, but to weave around the moving props and scenery.

There’s a lot that can go wrong, but when it’s done well performers can create pure musical magic.

The teens from Ariel do just that and their version of Miss Saigon is everything a musical should be – intensely emotional, extraordinarily professional and utterly engrossing.

In fact, after only a few minutes, the real ages of the performers are forgotten as they bring their adult characters to life with a totally convincing sense of realism.

The play, based on Madame Butterfly, is set during the Vietnam War and explores a romance between Vietnamese bar girl Kim and American marine Chris.

Tara Lucas conveys Kim’s optimism and longing brilliantly, while showing her desperation to escape her would-be fiancée Thuy.

Will Carey is excellent as Chris, presenting a man whose world is turned upside-down, first by falling in love with a bar girl, then by the cruel twist-of-fate that takes her away from him for three years.

Peter Heppell almost steals the show as The Engineer, a sleazy bar owner who loves the American dream a little too much. He’s a kind of comic relief, but Peter draws out his character’s dark side as The Engineer uses people for personal advancement.

Tom Ball is on good form as Chris’s army buddy John, a character driven to help Bui-Doi children by his guilt about America’s role in Vietnam.

Ollie Hopkins is perfect as Thuy, Kim’s authoritarian fiancée who becomes a Commissar for the Viet Cong. His character has a fierce stage presence – intimidating, unyielding and capable of committing sudden acts of violence without compunction.

Daisy Minords manages to make Ellen, Chris’s American wife, one of the play’s most sympathetic characters. Her presence makes a relationship between Chris and Kim impossible, but, as Ellen makes clear in a soulful performance of Now That I’ve Seen Her, it’s really not her fault.

The ensemble does a fine job too, with performers confidently playing bar girls, oppressed boat people and Viet Cong soldiers.

In this show, the art direction, choreography and music fuses together to offer a first-rate night of entertainment.

The fall of Saigon, for example, encapsulates everything that’s right with the production. In this scene Chris and Kim are separated as desperate Vietnamese pound on the gates of the American embassy.

The scenery shifts around, giving us different views of the action and any performers who aren’t singing move in slow motion so our attention is always focused on the correct characters. To top it all off, a helicopter seems to descend on the stage, complete with roaring sound effects.

It’s just stunning and it sums up a production where all the elements fit together beautifully.

By Lawrence Smith