By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
The horror of war is made tragic on a small scale in Miss Saigon, as an interracial couple caught up in the maelstrom of the Vietnam War reach out to comfort one another with tragic consequences. If the work seems familiar it’s because it is based on Giacomo Puccini’s grand opera Madama Butterfly and was updated and expanded by the award-winning team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schöneberg.
While there are deviations such as the updated setting from a peaceful Nagasaki, Japan to a war-ravaged Saigon, the leading characters of Kim and Chris are far better nuanced than those of Cio-Cio San and Lt. Pinkerton found in the opera or the David Belasco play upon which Puccini and his two librettists based their work.
In particular, the central character of Kim must be able to carry the work with a fervent inner strength that helps her endure the vicissitudes of life in war-torn Vietnam. Emily Bautista does an outstanding job of bringing the role to life and imbues in her excellent singing that inner strength as well as a lesser degree of frailty that gives depth to Kim.
Bautista’s voice is heard first in “The Heat Is On’ as a somewhat shy, but determined 17-year-old, who is forced to leave her village and her privileged status there to become a woman in a brothel. By the time she sings her final selection, “I’d Give My Life for You,” she has become a determined and passionate force from whom no one could alter her life’s trajectory.
Likewise, Anthony Festa plays his role of her lover Chris with tenderness wrought with guilt over their star-crossed relationship. A disillusioned sergeant in the U.S. Army, he encounters Kim on her first night there and the two attempt to save each other emotionally through an ill-advised and steamy affair.
His voice soars in “Why God Why?” in which he questions how their chance meeting has inalterably changed his life and in his love duets with Bautista, “Sun and Moon” and “The Last Night of the World,” Festa’s voice is a vital force that echoes, supports and transcends that of his partner.
Playing the role of the wily Engineer is Red Concepcion, a snake in the grass who slithers his way around Saigon and, later, in Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok, always looking for a way to use others in order to achieve his goals. His plan to get more money for a virgin from the U.S. soldiers frequenting his establishment goes off the tracks when Chris is reluctantly forced to go with Kim, but falls in love.
Concepcion is not unlike Boublil and Schönberg’s other characterization of Thernadier in Les Miserables, a man who benefits from the ill fortune of others. Whether pushing his feminine wares in “The Heat Is On” and “The Transaction,” he is a sleazy excuse for a man whose pursuit of wealth and power is insatiable. Even in the post-American environment as a re-educated citizen, he is looking to find a way to rise above the pedestrian life mandated for him by the communists. In Bangkok, later in Act II, he schemes again to take advantage of Kim and her illegitimate child to enable him to obtain a visa as their “brother and uncle.”
Also, playing Chris’ wartime buddy and devoted post-war friend is J. Daughtry in the role of John. A nihilistic soldier whose moral compass has gone off kilter, John is the catalyst to bring Chris and Kim together and is the link that will eventually and tragically bring them together. His greatest opportunity to shine is the Act II opener “Bui Doi,” in which he and other former soldiers admit to their transgressions in fathering children seen as the spawn of the enemy in post-war Vietnam. Daughtry’s magnificent and powerful voice soars above the others as images of neglected orphans are shown on a giant screen projected at the rear.
As seen in the film, the emotional toll on the children and, as seen on the stage, on the adults is more than evident as there is shame and guilt shared by the men assembled in the Bui Doi Foundation meeting in Atlanta some three years after the end of the war.
They’re called Bui-Doi
The dust of life
Conceived in hell
And born in strife
They are the living reminder of all the good we failed to do
We can’t forget
Must not forget
That they are all our children, too
Jinwoo Jung portrays Thuy, the villager to whom Kim was promised in marriage as a child, and who pursues her after she has fled what is left of her pillaged village. Kim’s rebuke of Thuy is a pivotal point in her relationship with Chris claiming her over all else (“Thuy’s Intervention”). Ultimately, it leads to a tragic confrontation between Kim and Thuy three years later in “You Will Not Touch Him,” in which a mother’s love rises above all else.
As determined as Kim is to save herself, she is the ultimate protector of her son Tam, the obvious product of their affair and a stain on her reputation, as viewed by Thuy and the other Vietnamese left behind by those they regard as American invaders.
The famous flashback scene in Act II which depicts how Kim and Chris are separated is noteworthy. A helicopter is shown plucking Americans out of the U.S. Embassy is scaled back a bit in this production, but aided by projections that give more movement to the image on stage. Totie Drive and Matt Kinley are credited with the design of the production and overall the size and extent of the staging is quite impressive in this Cameron Mackintosh and Networks production.
As for the music, Boublil and Schönberg’s work still stands the test of time as sumptuous and riveting. It is a testament to the skill of the leading singers that their voices must be trained well in order to maintain focus and clarity for the more than two and a half hours of the show’s duration. Orchestrations by the late William David Brohn with music supervision by Stephen Brooker are quite warm and enveloping as the music fills the Saenger Theater’s expanse, conducted by Will Curry and a 15-piece orchestra.
Costumes by Andreane Neofitou are absolutely spot on and as to the lighting designs, hats off to Bruno Poet and Luke Halls for the projections. Mick Potter also provides incredible and memorable sound design in this production.
This production, originally a revival that starred Eva Noblezada in the lead role of Kim followed the historic original production that first hit West End Stages in London in 1989 and then transferred to Broadway in 1991 starring the legendary Lea Salonga.
Although it does not have the same overwhelming success as their 1985 West End production of Les Miserables that went on to huge success on Broadway and on multiple tours worldwide , Boublil and Schönberg’s Miss Saigon, along with the additional lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Michael Mahler, is nonetheless worthy as one of the most powerful and emotional pieces ever to grace a Broadway stage. What Puccini and others wrought has been creatively and artistically enhanced in this very fine touring production. It should not be missed.
Part of the Broadway in New Orleans series, the national tour of Miss Saigon continues at the Saenger Theater, 1111 Canal Street, with performances tonight through Sunday, January 26 and matinees on Saturday and Sunday. For tickets call 504-525-1052 or click here.