REVIEW: By Violi Calvert

CHRISTCHURCH – The Miss Saigon musical staged by Showbiz Christchurch at the Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch opened on September 27 to a captivated audience.

Judging by the number of people up on their feet in a standing ovation at the end of the show, it was a huge success. Even during the intermission, the buzz and lots of smiling faces indicated that the audience was suitably impressed by what they had seen so far.

The musical, which was written in tribute to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil of Les Misérables fame, has been toasted globally. I have previously watched three productions of Miss Saigon in Sydney and can confidently say that this time, again, the story was well told and will have a strong season in Christchurch.

The story of the lead up to the fall of Saigon draws out and gets the audiences involved in the drama of the lives of people affected by the American war. It centres on the romance of a young innocent Vietnamese girl (Kim) and an American GI (Chris), which turns into a tragedy when they get separated when Saigon falls. Unbeknown to Chris, he fathered a son with Kim. Their reunion years later is heart-wrenching, with Kim meeting the wife of Chris (Ellen), then deciding how her son could have a better life.

Overall, the cast and the ensemble delivered through the haunting and challenging songs, the convincing acting, the music and the crisp and well synchronised group moves.

They were aided by the simple but effective set and props, effects, lighting, costumes and make-up. Notably, the helicopter scenes and the gates cleverly shifting, shutting out the anguished crowd wanting to get out, were so realistic that the audience felt that they were part of the scenes.

Marcus Rivera, who played The Engineer, was the standout performer. I have watched him twice in that role and I would say that he again has gone a notch higher in his latest portrayal.

He commanded the stage in ‘The Heat is On in Saigon’ and ‘If You Want to Die in Bed’ and was mesmerising in ‘The American Dream’, amidst the backdrop of scantily-clad showgirls and male dancers. He personified an unsavoury and disreputable pimp, with his confident singing not missing a beat with the orchestra’s accompaniment.

But don’t just take my word for it. Patrick Shepherd, who did the review for Stuff.Co.NZ, also felt that: “the show’s success rests on the three main leads and especially the engineer.

“Marcus Rivera was excellent as the sleazy, self-serving manipulator making a buck amidst the chaos … Rivera relished this role, singing with an easy confidence and plenty of cheeky sauce.”

Backstage Christchurch reviewer Kate Divett also said: “Marcus Rivera (The Engineer) is sassy and clever as the opportunistic club owner – his moment in ‘The American Dream’ was memorable.”

Tina Bergantinos Panlilio, a Filipino-New Zealand singer and musical theatre actress who played the role of Kim and Jack Fraser as Chris, get equal votes from me in their level of performance and contribution to the success of the show. Both have strong voices and convincingly conveyed the deep emotions they were feeling. If I were to pick only one song by each of them to put on the weighing scale, it would be Panlilio’s rendition of ‘I’d Give My Life for You’ and Fraser’s ‘Why God Why’.

Daniel Aguilar, another Fil-Aussie singer and stage actor, who was a late addition following an adjustment of the cast, performed the role of Thuy superbly. He played the same role years ago and his confidence from that stint showed.

James Foster’s acting and vocals, in the role of John, get a big tick too. His exchange with Chris as a concerned colleague and friend in ‘The Telephone Song’ and his leading of the all male choir in the Opening of Act II – ‘Bui Doi’ especially touched and drew much appreciation from the audience.

Hannah Austin played the role of Chris’ wife Ellen in a touching way. Her rendition of ‘I Still Believe’ with Kim as thousands of miles separated them and ‘Now That I’ve Seen Her’ expressed a torn yet hopeful heart.

Sion Choi (Gigi), who made her musical theatre debut, is a talent to watch out for. As she gains more experience she will be able to show off more of her vocals and exude more confidence on stage.

This Miss Saigon production is a stunning theatrical spectacle and amazing musical theatre. I tip my hat to the Director, Stephen Robertson, the Musical Director, Richard Marrett and Showbiz Christchurch for a job well done.

Miss Saigon ran through to October 12 at the Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch.

Editor – Violi Calvert is a producer/broadcaster of Radio Tagumpay, Triple H 100.1FM and winner of the Parliament of New South Wales Multicultural and Indigenous Media Award for Coverage of Community Affairs (2015).

This article first appeared in Australian Filipina. Reprinted with special permission of the Publisher.