So how does Boublil and Schönberg's musical stand up 25 years after its premiere?
In this new production by Laurence Connor, it survives very well as a piece of musical storytelling and as a public spectacle. It's not a show one loves, in the way one does Guys and Dolls or Sweeney Todd, but I found myself watching it with a professional admiration.
It is famously derived from Madam Butterfly in that it shows, in the final days of the Vietnam war, the doomed love between an American marine, Chris, and an orphaned Saigon prostitute, Kim. But, in one crucial respect, the narrative improves on its source.
In the opera, Pinkerton's abandonment of Cio-Cio-San strikes one as heartless. But, in this version, the lovers are separated by the enforced American evacuation of Saigon in 1975. And this leads to the musical's most famous scene of a helicopter whisking troops off the American embassy roof, something accomplished here with a technical skill that generates the kind of excitement one associates with 19th-century spectacular melodrama.
But, seeing the show for the first time in a quarter of a century, I was more struck by its satirical edge than its emotional power. It's not just that Chris condemns the Vietnam war as "a senseless fight". Connor's production implies that, although the story is about a cultural collision, the opposing forces of communism and capitalism carry strange visual echoes.
Ho Chi Minh City, as Saigon became, is embodied by a towering golden statue before which Viet Cong troops parade with well-drilled fervour. America, meanwhile, is symbolised by a Statue of Liberty replica before which chorines dance with military precision. The show is not morally equating the two systems; it is simply suggesting that they feed off each other.
The show's satirical quality is best embodied by the character of the Engineer: a pimping Pandarus, bred of a Vietnamese woman and a French soldier, he is caught between two worlds and dreams of escape to America.
He was excellently played by Jonathan Pryce in the original, but here Jon Jon Briones makes him an even grubbier, sleazier figure who is the victim of both his background and pathetic fantasies that see him in the penultimate number, The American Dream, pleasuring himself on the bonnet of a Cadillac.
The show's political point about the casualties of a disastrous war comes across clearly. If I was less moved by the love story, it was no fault of the actors but of the fact that Schönberg's score becomes generic and rhetorical in the big romantic numbers. They are, however, very well sung by Eva Noblezada as Kim and Alistair Brammer as Chris. Kwang-Ho-Hong also makes a very strong impression as Kim's rejected lover turned political commissar.
All told, the evening leaves one admiring the technical skill of Connor's production, the musical staging of Bob Avian and the designs of Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, which bring out especially well the gaudy vulgarity and neon sickness of Bangkok, where Kim ends up as an exploited showgirl.