Theatrical flair abounds in youth production of Broadway classic

Nathan Johnston as Chris and Niamh McAuley as Kim in Miss Saigon
Nathan Johnston as Chris and Niamh McAuley as Kim in Miss Saigon
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THEATRE REVIEW: Miss Saigon School Edition @ Grand Opera House, Belfast

Claude-Michel Schonbeg and Alain Bloubil’s rambunctious, ballad-powered 1989 musical is based on the heartrending Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, and similarly tells a tragic tale of doomed romance between an idealistic Asian woman and her American lover.

Only here the action is reclocated to 1970s Saigon during the Vietnam War when the city’s nightclubs and bars are teeming with go-go dancers, prostitues and colourful hustlers mixing with American troops who seek entertainment and abandon from the gruelling daily strife. The beauty queens in sequins and shorts are out in force as the Marines mingle with the locals and the promise of sex, liquor and all manner of gaudy vulgarity means the heat is on in downtown Saigon.

This Summer Youth Production at Belfast’s Grand Opera House features a cast of outstandingly talented teens who bring the well-worn story - one of Broadway’s longest running musicals - to life with incredible verve, exquisite vocals and impressive acting chops. Cotumes, set design, ensemble chorus, direction - everything about this production was professional and at its end brought the audience spontaneously, joyously, to its feet.

The razzmatazz of these hot Vietnamese nights is presided over by such sordid ringmasters as the Engineer, here played by 18-year-old Connor O’Brien, who struts and simpers and sings of his American dreams of a better life while matching GIs with pretty courtesans, lining his pockets as the debauchery continues . Amid the neon signs and seedy sensuality the virginal and elegant Kim, exploited as a south Vietnamese show girl, yet singleminded, set apart and defiant, here played with outstanding poise and exquisite vocal power by Niamh McAuley, fatefully meets American GI Chris (an impresssively faught Nathan Johnston).

The two fall desperately in love but are separated when Chris is forced to board a helicopter from the US embassy back to the States, a scene dramatically depicted, like a vignette from Apocalypse Now, as Kim among many other Vietnamese women - the ensemble chorus swelling with talented vocalists - cry out to the escaping men as the chopper takes off, leaving them in the quagmire of danger and poverty.

Big ballad follows big ballad, dance sequences abound, the confrontation between Vietnamese communism and American capitalism is signposted eloquently, and time passes as Kim becomes mother to Chris’s son, whom she names Tam (an unbearably cute three-year-old Thea Marshall from Bangor), and though she is separated from her lover she keeps his memory alive in her songs and prayers, dreaming that one day he will return to her in fanfare. She endures at the awesome thought of a reunion that would be the answer to all of her most anguished prayers.

But the denouement is much darker - you will need tissues - and Kim’s hopes are to be cruelly dashed when her love returns to Vietnam after a three year absence.

Special mention must also go to Harry Blaney, who played Thuy, the Vietnamese officer who was betrothed to Kim. He was commanding and fearsome in the role and the audience marvels at the strength of Kim’s commitment to her absent American love; she still believes they are “sun and moon, joined together by the gods of fortune/ Midnight and high noon/ Sharing the sky”. And the price of such passion is a terrible grief.

As a piece of musical storytelling and dazzling spectacle, and as a parable about the casualties of a disastrous conflict, this production was an unmitigated triumph.

Miss Saigon School Edition runs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast until July 21. Visit www.goh.co.uk or call the box office on 02890 241 919.