Saigon musical: 'moving, engaging'

BALLINA Players have perhaps taken on their greatest challenge telling the unhappy story of Miss Saigon, but they have produced a musical that is always engaging and often moving.

Miss Saigon is the tale of an ill-fated love affair but it has added poignancy because it is set in a foreign land, where allied troops fight a long, un-winnable war and two of the main characters are boat people.

No, the story does not unfold in 2010 but in 1975 during the last weeks of the Vietnam War and centres on an American GI Chris (played by Dean Doyle) and a young Vietnamese call-girl, Kim (Grace Cockburn), who’s controlled by a ruthless pimp – the Engineer (Dean Salonga).

Salonga, who was a cast member of Sydney’s original Miss Saigon, is mesmerising as the conniving Engineering.

The character is prepared to lie, cheat and exploit women and children in his quest to make it to America – yet you find yourself hoping he gets there.

"So do I," Salonga said on opening night. "Do you think we could have Miss Saigon 2?"

Salonga’s diction and timing is perfect in every number.

Most of the show’s dialogue is sung, and almost all the songs are in minor keys with a clear Asian influence and strong percussion - a small orchestra of about 10 musicians play the ballads.

But the show picks up speed in the second half, when Salonga performs the high-kicking American Dream accompanied by a bevy of beautiful, scantily clad Ballina girls. Salonga encourages the audience to enjoy the smorgasbord with a cheeky "Are you seeing this?" aside to the audience.

But that is the evening’s most light-hearted moment, and according to Salonga an important ‘release for the audience and me’, given the intensity of the story.

Earlier the audience sees the desperate refugees of the Vietnam War. Two wire-fences are bought on stage and when a seething crowd (the performers hold up the fences) jostle behind the gates we’re reminded of TV scenes of detention centres.

Dean Doyle, who plays the American GI, says when the Ballina Players began work on Miss Saigon they workshopped the issues and looked at how today’s society deals with the same quandaries.

Ironically Doyle spent 13 years as a musician with the Australian Defence Force.

"I was very at home in the uniform," he jokes, "and had no trouble getting the boots on, unlike other cast members."

Handsome Doyle is convincing as the tortured young marine and the very gorgeous Grace Cockburn puts in a solid performance, channelling Kim’s innocence. The stage charisma of Jesse Matthews-Cooke (Chris’s best friend) is undeniable.

Many amateur groups have stayed clear of this controversial musical, loosely based on the tragic opera, Madam Butterfly. Does Miss Saigon (written by the team behind Les Miserable: Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg) have the crowd-pulling power of light-hearted frolics, such My Fair Lady and the Boy from Oz which Ballina Players performed last year?

Given that most of their seasons are sell-outs, Ballina Players were ready for a challenge.

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