Applause for the welcome announcement. Applause for the mobile phone warning. Rapturous applause for the house lights dimming. Three ecstasies before a note had sounded. Never have I seen an audience so determined to love every tiniest aspect of a show. Small wonder this revival broke world records for opening ticket sales. The thing is, they’re so nearly totally right.
Producer Cameron Mackintosh describes this 25th-anniversary staging as grittier than the 1989 original. Despite the antithetical nature of grit to West End musicals, director Laurence Connor looks to have gone against the grain as far as he reckons he reasonably can. The famous helicopter still appears for the Saigon evacuation, but it is amid a scene of real upheaval; a dragon dance takes place before a huge golden image of Ho Chi Minh, but this contrasts with a palpable sense of degradation in the sex-club scenes set in Saigon and later in Bangkok. Despite the familiarity of the plot (recycled, with full acknowledgment, from Madame Butterfly), one feels at moments that something is truly at stake as young Kim struggles to get her child to the US while his ex-Marine father Chris tries in vain to avoid the consequences of his past conduct.
Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s work in general shows at least as much expert craft as inspired flair; a sung-through musical is always ambitious, and this one rarely descends into plonking banality. (New Act Two number “Maybe” may be undistinguished, but it doesn’t jar as a late stitch-in.) This outing is also devoid of the casting of Caucasian actors in Asian roles which led to controversy a generation ago. Filipino Jon Jon Briones as club manager the Engineer (the role originated by Jonathan Pryce with eye prosthetics) exudes glee during his numbers, even when singing of how depressed he is in Bangkok; Eva Noblezada as Kim has a belting voice, at times too strident for the innocent 17-year-old she is portraying.
Yet the tale, like its predecessor, still relies on orientalism, a shorthand list of ways in which They Over There are different from Us. In its way, the Engineer’s exuberant fantasia “The American Dream” suggests a corresponding Occidentalism, but this is not enough to counteract the exotic assumptions that inform the piece. This is a severe drawback, but it is the only one in what is otherwise an exemplar of its kind.