Review: Miss Saigon, Sunderland Empire, until November 17

Man-size tissues may be a thing of the past now, but you're going to need a huge hankie to get through this blockbuster musical.
Sooha Kim as KimSooha Kim as Kim
Sooha Kim as Kim

Miss Saigon and its three tonne helicopter have landed at Sunderland Empire where it’s set to bring audiences to tears for a three-week run.

It’s a show of epic proportions which I’ve seen many times before, but it never fails to move with its dramatic love story of Chris and Kim which is played out amidst the tragedy of war.

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It all begins in Dreamland, the seedy strip club where women are a commodity to be bartered for by the GIs posted in Saigon. It’s a hugely colourful opening number of lithe dancing girls and testosterone-fuelled soldiers which immediately whisks you from a wind-swept Wearside to the heat of the Far East.

The ringleader of this circus of flesh is The Engineer, played with real magnetism by Leo Tavarro Valdez who’s also donned the character’s nylon flared suits on the West End stage.

Despite the degradation, Chris and Kim, played by Ashley Gilmour and Sooha Kim, manage to find a pure love and the pair are utterly believable as a couple relishing the first flushes of passion in duets The Money’s Yours and Sun and Moon. The Wedding Ceremony scene is particularly touching and Sooha’s songbird voice stunning against the delicate harmonies of the other girls.

War, of course, inevitably gets in the way and Chris is forced to leave his love behind as Saigon falls.

Ashley Gilmour and Ryan O'Gorman as Chris and JohnAshley Gilmour and Ryan O'Gorman as Chris and John
Ashley Gilmour and Ryan O'Gorman as Chris and John
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Three years later and Kim is a broken woman held together only by her love for son Tam, one of countless children born from liaisons between American soldiers and Vietnamese women. It’s this love which leads to a heart-tugging scene between her and Thuy (Gerald Santos) who she’d been betrothed to against her will in childhood. Testament to Sooha’s acting, you feel every pierce of her screams as Thuy attempts to rip mother and son apart.

If that wasn’t enough to have you reaching for your tissues, the beginning of act two will as the real faces of the Bui Doi (orphaned children from the war) flash up on the screen behind former GI John, played by North East actor Ryan O’Gorman. The fact that this musical is set in a real war is never lost on the cast, which only serves to heighten the emotion of the piece.

It’s John who helps to reunite Chris and Kim in Bangkok where The Engineer is still going strong, he’s a cockroach that one, and this time he’s hawking women to tourists instead of soldiers.

Like many, he harbours a burning ambition to make his fortune in the States and the American Dream scene in which he performs against a giant, glittering Statue of Liberty is dazzling.

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The sets are as huge as the emotion in Miss Saigon, never more so than in the flashback scene to the fall of Saigon, featuring the show-stopping helicopter which takes Chris away from a desperate, screaming Kim. It’s cleverly done and so realistic it will almost have you ducking your head as it flies off.

Though the pair are eventually reunited, Chris is now married to Ellen (Elana Martin). Kim is crushed and so are we, despite Elana doing a good job of making the new woman in his life likeable.

If the closing scenes as Kim’s dreams are dashed don’t leave you sniffling into your bag of sweets, nothing will.