Some West End musicals seemingly never close: Les Miserables is about to enter its 30th year there, while The Phantom of the Opera is only a year behind it. And if they ain't broke, why fix them? Those shows have been meticulously maintained and are in tip-top shape, with new casts constantly renewing them (Les Mis will welcome a line-up of new principals from June 16).
But after a show closes, there's the opportunity to look at them afresh. Producer Cameron Mackintosh learnt this the hard way -- when he took Les Mis back to Broadway just three years after the original production closed, he revived the original staging, and audiences (and critics) merely shrugged: they'd seen it before. It ran for just over a year, against the original's over 17 year run. Earlier this year, however, he took it back to Broadway in a brand-new staging, based on a version that had been created for the show's 25th anniversary UK tour.
Now Mackintosh has brought back another of his 80s megahits Miss Saigon -- written by the same team behind Les Mis, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil -- to the West End in a new production, again based on a previous tour but expanded from it to create a teeming spectacle that feels even bigger, if that is possible, than the original 1989 Drury Lane production.
Of course there will be a whole new generation of theatregoers who never saw it during its ten year run then, and will welcome the chance to see it now. Fans of the original may also relish the chance to see a familiar work in an unfamiliar way: we happily see endless Hamlets and King Lears, after all, or even stagings of Carousel and Rent, for that matter.
I have to admit, though, that purely for myself I was left pining for the original, even as I fully realise that those that have never seen it before will not know what they've missed. There's plenty that's still great -- and some of it is from the original, including the show's famous advertising logo. Also still on board is orchestrator William David Brohn, whose musical scoring provides such an atmospheric undertow to the entire piece that lends its sometimes diffuse musical styles a consistent flow. Likewise original choreographer Bob Avian is still providing his slick musical staging that folds movement so thrillingly into the fabric of the show, not least in the stunning 'American Dream' number which casts an ironic commentary on the dreams and ambitions of the 'fixer' character of the Engineer that could have come straight out of Follies or Cabaret. And there is still, naturally, the show's iconic landing of a model life-size helicopter onstage (and it still wobbles a bit, too).
But elsewhere this new production seems to add scale and momentum at the expense of feeling. Laurence Connor's production is very, very busy -- my senses were regularly dazzled, but I was never moved.
That's despite Boublil's sincere re-telling of the Madame Butterfly story through the prism of a young American GI in Saigon who falls in love with a local girl who he first encounters as a prostitute. It is performed with utter sincerity, too, in the passionately sung performances of Alistair Brammer and firebrand newcomer Eva Noblezada respectively.
A company of thrilllingly good singers bring admirable punch and passion to the songs. I only wish that the same kind of integrity had been applied to the physical staging, which in striving so hard for effect only undermines the show's ultimate effectiveness.
"Laurence Connor’s production has a cinematic fluency and he keeps the dramatic tension simmering throughout. For all its many merits, however, I find it easier to admire Miss Saigon than to love it."
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"I can't say I was deeply moved, unlike the lady in front of me forever dabbing her eyes, but I came away feeling this is a successful variation on an old tale and put across with exemplary vigour."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The revelation is Eva Noblezada in her professional debut as Kim. Combining innocence with an incredible vocal range she is the human heart of an impressive production that is fundamentally opera for people who don’t like opera. A stone cold hit."
Neil Norman for The Express
"Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of the 1980s musical Miss Saigon is staged with such insistent extravagance that it bludgeons its way to success. Great art? Nope. But big theatre." Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"The result is a show of high-stakes intensity, which vividly dramatises private passions against a striking historical background. And its most notable feature is 18-year-old Noblezada (Kim), who seems a remarkable find."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard