Seann Miley Moore is THE definitive The Engineer of Miss Saigon. It’s the kind of reinvention of a core role you rarely see in musical theatre, turning the Saigon pimp into a rampaging queer showman that anchors a flawless cast in this new Sydney production. By the time you reach the show stopping number “The American Dream” you are ready to bow before Moore’s bejeweled, corseted, fever-dream diva. I’ve attended premiere productions of the show in London, New York and Sydney and this is the best production of Miss Saigon I’ve ever seen.
American G.I. Chris (Nigel Huckle) has lost his faith. After he returned to the USA from his first tour of Vietnam he couldn’t reconcile the reality of the violent, pointless conflict with the propaganda and denial he saw at home, and decided to return to the rank, honest truth of the war zone. But now, he has become equally as disillusioned with his own base behaviour and that of his fellow officers. He just wants to escape and start again. Out drinking with his buddies, a friend buys him a prostitute for the night to raise his spirits. At first reluctant, Chris takes Kim to bed (partially to appease her abusive pimp, The Engineer). Over the course of the night, Chris realises 17 year old Kim (Abigail Adriano) may be the only innocent thing left in his life and vows to take her back to America. Around them, Saigon is falling and Americans are being evacuated. In the mayhem, Chris loses Kim in the crowds. Three years later, Chris receives word that Kim has survived, and has a child… his son.
While this is technically a restaging of the 2014 production seen in London and New York, there have been notable updates, mainly to do with the role of the Engineer whose ad-libs and jibes felt fresh without being gratuitously contemporary (the mention of “inflation” drew a wry laugh from the crowd). Here, I really saw Kim’s immature, blinkered worldview, and how Chris’ desire to redeem his own actions in Vietnam leads him to believe he’s in love with this teenager. It was the first time I’ve connected with Miss Saigon, not as a tragic love story, but as an historical epic filled with flawed characters trying to survive by any means necessary. There are no saviours here, only victims.
The bar is set remarkably high early on by Kimberley Hodgson’s Gigi singing “The Movie in my Mind” and never drops over the course of the show’s running time. Newcomer Abigail Adriano is revelatory as the young, impressionable Kim (I’d say she rivals Eva Noblezada’s debut in the role). Adriano has a star-making voice and the acting chops to back it up. Kerrie Anne Greenland is simply perfect as Ellen, Chris’ American wife.
Nigel Huckle manages to breathe life into one of the sappiest roles in musical theatre. He’s less a character and more an avatar for American guilt, disenchantment and well-meaning hypocrisy. Ostensibly the “hero” of the narrative, Chris is actually a passive observer who fades away from the story after the opening moments, but Huckle sings the shows signature ballads with charm while keeping the character as clear of the inherent melodrama as possible (there’s only so much nuance you can bring to screaming the word “Noooo!!!!!”).
But the star of the show is Seann Miley Moore. This is by far the best performance I’ve seen Moore give, a blending of performer and role that is sheer theatrical alchemy. It reinvigorates the show in ways I hadn’t imagined. Jon Jon Briones, who played the same role on the West End and Broadway, gave The Engineer an uneasy air of danger, fueled by his desperation. By now making The Engineer explicitly queer, it recasts the role as a more sympathetic minority, whose own life is at stake under communism. It doesn’t forgive his treatment of the women he uses to claw his way up the ladder, but it adds a layer of deep personal terror to his camp avarice.
I won’t write an essay on the history of racial discourse surrounding Miss Saigon, but as someone of Chinese heritage I’ll just say I don’t have a problem with it. Now in 2023, we have much more Asian representation on stage and on screen allowing Miss Saigon to be merely one more tale in the mix, freed from the expectation to be a perfect narrative of Asian lives.
There is a simple thrill to hearing big musical theatre being sung by a 42-person strong ensemble, backed by a full 25-piece orchestra, that reminds you how good these blockbuster shows can be and in the Joan Sutherland theatre of the Sydney Opera House, this show sounds divine. Complex, fresh and wildly entertaining, this Miss Saigon is a winner.
By Chad Armstrong
Miss Saigon plays at the Sydney Opera House, Australia till 13 October 2023 before transferring to Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne from 29 October – 3 December 2023. Head to miss-saigon.com.au for more details.