Miss Saigon review: Sheffield Theatres’ electrifying revival

The blockbuster musical “Miss Saigon” ran for ten years in London and New York following its launch in 1989, but it was always controversial, said Paul Szabo on What’s On Stage.

A spin on Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” transposed to wartorn Vietnam, written by “Les Misérables” creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, it was accused of misogyny, racism, and of perpetuating racist stereotypes – and included the now unthinkable “yellowface” casting of Jonathan Pryce in a lead role.

When Sheffield Theatres announced the staging of the first-ever new production of the musical, one theatre company dropped the venue from its touring schedule in protest. And earlier this month, a new show, the Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play, mocking and satirising the musical, opened to considerable fanfare in Manchester.

I cordially disliked the original “Miss Saigon”, said Clive Davis in The Times. With its climactic on-stage helicopter, it seemed the “embodiment of the mega-musical at its gaudiest”. But the Crucible’s “pared-back” revival is a “triumph” – an electrifying, “shlock-free staging” that brings the story’s emotions into sharper focus.

Co-directors Anthony Lau and Robert Hastie have made something “starker and grittier” out of the musical, said Sam Marlowe in The Stage. And the “rage and anguish among the romance and the spectacle” are stunningly conveyed by an excellent cast. To undercut “the white-saviour narrative”, the American soldier (Christian Maynard) is African American. Kim, the Vietnamese strip-club worker he falls for, is played by Jessica Lee with “real ferocity”. And Joanna Ampil is superb in the role of the Engineer – the Vietnamese-French pimp played by Pryce in the original.

The show is a “slick and visually captivating” success, said Arifa Akbar in The Guardian. But it is “more of a tweak than a rigorous reimagining”. For those after a sharper look at the original, Kimber Lee’s Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play concludes its run at Manchester’s Royal Exchange this weekend, then plays at the Young Vic, London, from 18 September to 4 November.

Crucible, Sheffield (0114-249 6000; sheffieldtheatres.co.uk). Until 19 August. Rating ****