“Miss Saigon” seen through first-timer’s eyes
There’s lots of sturm und drang being played out at the Kennedy Center in the new production of the musical Miss Saigon, which melodically blasts, electronically blazes, and dramatically tugs at audience emotions for almost three hours on the Opera House stage.
It’s an ode to the odiousness of the Vietnam War, to the broad and brash Broadway musical, and to Madame Butterfly (on which it is based).
Miss Saigon revolves around the love affair between a G.I. and a young Vietnamese bar girl. For those unfamiliar with the musical, the action is fully played out in song and dance, many of the settings are in funky nightclubs, and the Asian bar girls act like, well, how Asian bar girls probably acted in 1975 Saigon and 1978 Bangkok.
Miss Saigon premiered in London in 1989, and opened on Broadway in 1991. It had a 10-year run in both cities. It was revived on Broadway last year, and has been presented multiple times in national tours, such as the one now at the Kennedy Center.
The basic story line
When remaining U.S. troops are evacuated from Saigon at the end of the war, the 17-year-old Kim (Emily Bautista), who believes she will be going to America with her Marine lover, finds herself left behind, with tender memories and a sweet little boy child.
Ex-G.I. Chris (Anthony Festa), who returns home and acquires an American bride, is convinced by a war buddy who works to reunite Vietnamese “street children” with their American fathers to return to Vietnam to see the son he didn’t know he had. Chris brings along his wife, Ellen.
Needless to say — so I won’t go into it for potential first-time viewers — tragedy occurs.
Through much of the action, a character known as the Engineer (played by Red Concepcion) dances and prances. He’s the lowlife nightclub owner, half-French, half-Vietnamese, who plays everyone off everyone else strictly for his own benefit.
The book and music by the French team of Claude Michael Schönberg and Alain Boublil — who collaborated on Les Miserables, another Broadway blockbuster — is full of songs reaching for, and sometimes attaining, truly emotional heights.
Two in particular are “Sun and Moon,” a simple love duet sung by Chris and Kim after their first meeting, and “Maybe,” a potential lost-love lament expressed with a sad strength by American wife Ellen (Stacie Bono).
The standout musical number, for this cynical reviewer at least, is called “The American Dream.” It is performed by the Engineer and his dancing girls at the bright and crass Moulin Rouge nightclub in Bangkok.
He longs to go to America to make lots of unclean money and to have a new Cadillac and many blonde, busty American girlfriends:
What’s that I smell in the air?
The American dream, sweet as a new millionaire;
The American dream, pre-packed, ready-to-wear;
My American dream; fat, like a chocolate éclair
as you suck out the cream.
Special effects over the top
A confession: this is the first time I’ve seen this show, so I have not grown so cynical that the famous helicopter scene didn’t floor me.
Let’s just say it is really thrilling as the chopper carrying the last Americans out of Saigon ascends into the theater wings while the Vietnamese left behind try to climb the closed gates of the U.S. Embassy — all this happening amidst roaring motors, with lights flashing and flickering on and off stage.
There are also attention-grabbing scenes of soldiers, dragons and acrobats marching and flipping through the air while singing and dancing in 1978 Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon).
The cast and crew are pros, all the way. Director Laurence Connor earlier staged the show in London and New York.
With the help of lighting designer Bruno Poet, sound designer Mick Potter and other behind-the-scenes artists, Connor creates a highly dramatic world that — when it is not indulging in somewhat stereotypical boy-meets/loves/loses/regains/loses-girl scenes — can move the audience to deep sympathy for the characters and their plights.
Standout singing (not acoustics)
Bautista, who plays Kim, the sweet once-innocent peasant girl, shines in her semi-operatic musical numbers. Festa shows a touching, somewhat flawed humanity as Chris, the Marine who loses his love in the panicked escape from Saigon.
Concepcion is wonderfully rotten as the scene-stealing Engineer, while Bono is touchingly and confusedly understanding as Ellen, Chris’ all-American wife.
Daughtry has sympathetic moments as wartime buddy John, who convinces Chris to return to Vietnam, and Jinwood Jung perfectly fills the role as Kim’s childhood boyfriend turned Viet Cong menacer.
Cheers also to conductor Will Curry, who leads the pit orchestra in 28 singing and dancing numbers.
Now for a playgoer’s — as opposed to a snooty critic’s — complaints. There was nothing in the playbill that gave a hint of the plot. I suggest that first-time viewers go to Wikipedia before attending the show.
That’s also because, as the plot evolves through the songs, the words are not very easy to understand. At first, I thought it was my growing hard-of-hearing self. But I have since learned that others in the audience also had trouble making out the lyrics.
There are two options offered by the Kennedy Center for those who anticipate a problem hearing clearly. A limited number of Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs) are available free on a first-come, first-served basis at the ALD desk in the Hall of States starting approximately one hour prior to performances.
At certain performances, there is an LED screen onto which the words being spoken or sung are projected. This sign is placed on the right side of the theatre, where a special section is set aside for those who need the service. You need to specify when purchasing tickets that you want to sit in this section.
This reviewer would like to suggest that such signs be placed on both sides of the stage for the benefit of the audience as a whole. Or maybe the lyrics could be projected above the stage as is common at opera performances.
Miss Saigon continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW, Washington, D.C., through Jan. 13. Tickets are $49 to $175. For more information, see kennedy-center.org or call (202) 467-4600.