When Sheffield Theatres announced that they were reviving Miss Saigon, they were met with a lot of criticism – understandably, for the musical is deeply problematic. New Earth Theatre, a company of British East and South East Asian artists, and co-producers Storyhouse pulled the play from the venue. Now, The Royal Exchange Theatre is currently staging untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play, perhaps in protest. But what was missing from the criticism is the fact that almost the entire creative team, including the co-artistic director of the organisation and joint director of the revival, are Asian. Thus, this is not merely a revival; it’s not even just a reimagining – but a reclamation.
Miss Saigon is based on Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, which, in turn, was based on John Luther’s short story Madame Butterfly. Set in Japan, the narrative follows the ill-fated romance between a geisha and an American soldier. Miss Saigon relocates the setting to Saigon during the Vietnam War, with the geisha replaced with a Vietnamese prostitute.
It was clear from the very beginning that this revival was going to be shaking things up (which, I believe, should happen to all old musicals, not just the problematic ones, to make them more relevant and interesting) because Sheffield Theatres announced that they were casting a woman as the engineer – which has never been done before.
The engineer is the mixed-race owner of Dreamland, which is, essentially, a brother. Many brothels were/are run by women (often known as ‘Madams’) so this change is realistic and it adds additional context. Interestingly, a production photo suggests the engineer is or once was Miss Saigon.
Taking on the iconic role is Joanna Ampil, who played the female lead, Kim, in several Miss Saigon productions, including The West End, the original Australian production, and the original UK tour. I saw her in the Chichester Festival Theatre’s revival of South Pacific, which similarly reimagined its Asian characters, especially Ampil’s character, the iconic Bloody Mary.
In this production, Kim is played by Jessica Lee, with Desmonda Cathabel, who usually plays fellow bargirl Mimi, playing Kim on Wednesday evenings and Saturday matinées (where Lee will play Mimi).
Gigi, the most prolific showgirl prior to Kim’s arrival, is played by Aynrand Ferrer, who I recently saw in the original UK cast of George Takei’s Allegiance, which is also Asian-led.
The male lead, Chris, is played by Christian Maynard. I’m curious about the casting of a Black actor in the role. Whilst it’s great to see a huge lead role go to a person of colour, it negates the racist aspect of the relationship, in which a White man abandons his Asian lover and marries a White woman, but it could offer a commentary on the exploitation of African-American soldiers during the Vietnam War. Will it, though? We’ll have to see.
Chris’ wife, Ellen, is played by Shanay Holmes, who is also Black, whilst his romantic rival, Thuy, is played by Ethan Le Phong.
I caught the last tour of Miss Saigon. There are aspects of the musical that I love, truly, but I find much of it troubling – especially as a person of colour. If the musical were being revived by White creatives, I would be concerned, but it’s pretty cathartic seeing Asians reclaim a racially problematic narrative.
Miss Saigon began its run at Crucible on July 8; it runs until August 19 2023.