Disclaimer: Before I go into my review, I need to say that I have not listened to the Original Broadway Cast of Miss Saigon. Therefore, I will not be comparing this recording of the show to the OBC.
Not long ago, I wandered into the 5th Avenue Barnes and Noble looking for the recent studio recording of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. To my (albeit happy) shock, all copies of that CD were sold out. However, they were also holding a great sale on most musical theatre CDs, so I didn’t really want to go home empty-handed. I walked out of the store with a live recording of the most recent production of Miss Saigon– on the West End, but soon to be headed to Broadway (more on that later).
Let me start off by saying that the sound quality of this thing is phenomenal. Although the numbers retain their massive applause, the voices and orchestra are so clear and beautiful that you’d swear this were made in a studio. Furthermore, the moments of applause flow so seamlessly into one another that it’s almost like the show is playing around you (Miss Saigon is virtually sung-through, which majorly helps in this case).
For those who aren’t familiar: the story of this piece is taken from Puccini’s landmark opera Madama Butterfly, but in a new time period. During the Vietnam War, a young Saigon woman (Eva Noblezada) falls in love with an American soldier – only for them to be separated for good when the city falls. Unbeknownst to Christopher (Alistair Brammer), Kim is still awaiting his return- with their little son by her side. In the midst of everything is Kim’s former boss, a scheming dreamer known only as The Engineer (Jon Jon Briones), and Chris’s new wife Ellen (Tamsin Carroll).
This cast seems to be very hot-and-cold among longtime fans of the show. Some people criticize Noblezada and Brammer’s chemistry, some think the supporting case outshines the leads, and some inevitably compare them all to the famed OBC. It’s hard to pinpoint acting choices without seeing them onstage, but from what I can hear, this cast sounds really wonderful in their roles. Eva has a crystal pop voice that really reverberates in “The Last Night of the World,” “Room 317,” and the Finale. As Gigi, a call girl working for the Engineer, Rachelle Ann Go is also a stunning singer.
Speaking of the Engineer, his is a very tricky character to analyze. Widely regarded as one of the best supporting roles in the musical theatre canon, he gained much of his acclaim from the original actor who played him: Jonathan Pryce. As a result, Jon Jon Briones had a lot at stake when he tackled the part, but I honestly think he did a fantastic job. In his showstopper, “The American Dream,” Briones performs with such gusto that I get a great picture of what facial expressions he’d have during the song. That number itself is full of depth and insight; after the Engineer tells his personal story, he goes into a grand delusion of what some people think it means to live in America.
I love listening to the orchestra and ensemble on this recording. You can tell by their sound alone that Miss Saigon is a hallmark of the 1980s’ “mega musical” era. For the most part, it is a time long gone; with the exception of juggernaut shows like The Phantom of the Opera and Wicked, the current Broadway economy and audience numbers simply cannot sustain monster productions. It’s just one of several reasons why bare-bones, “minimalist” theatre is so popular these days. As I mentioned earlier, this presentation of Miss Saigon will be headed to the Imperial Theatre next spring- and Eva Noblezada and Jon Jon Briones will both be reprising their roles.
Regardless of whether this theatrical time capsule will successfully find new footing in the U.S., I’d certainly recommend the 2014 live recording as an introduction. It’s a very satisfying listening experience and a good way to gauge if, for you, the heat is still on in Saigon…or if some things should just stay in the past.