Also see Scott's review of Brigadoon
As the follow-up effort from Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the creators of Les Miserables, Miss Saigon enjoyed healthy runs in London, New York and on worldwide tours.
For the past two years, a new American non-Equity tour has been crisscrossing the country and can currently be seen at the Aronoff Center. Even though this production features all new design elements and changes in direction/choreography from the original version, the universality of the piece, along with strong lead performances, effective staging, and a moving score, continue to make it an engaging musical.
Miss Saigon takes place during the Vietnam War just before the fall of Saigon where Kim, a young Vietnamese woman, is forced into prostitution in order to survive. Chris, an American GI, meets Kim at the local club run by The Engineer. Chris and Kim fall in love, but are separated when the Americans evacuate the country. Even as years pass, the memories of this short relationship continue, and a meeting between the two lovers brings their story to a dramatic climax.
The somewhat complex plot does well in combining a touching love story, multi-dimensional characters, historical perspectives and plenty of conflict to create an intriguing tale. If it is sometimes overly melodramatic, and it is in a few spots, the book does properly capture the humanity of the characters within their circumstances.
The score for this all-sung musical, with Schonberg's music and lyrics supplied by Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr. (Baby, Big), is one of the better examples of the pop opera genre popular in the mid-1980s through the early 1990s (though not up to the achievements of Les Miserables). Even though the lyrics to some of the ballads are too syrupy sweet, the score is filled with passion and tension in both music and words, and is well crafted throughout. There are some minor lyric changes for this production, and the thirteen-piece orchestra, capably led by Laura Kevin Casey, does well in recreating the original orchestrations (thanks to some synthesized sounds). Musical highlights include "I Still Believe"(a duet for the two women in Chris' life), "I'd Give My Life For You" (an impassioned promise from mother to son), "Bui-Doi" (a plea to American GIs to support the abandoned children they left behind in Vietnam), and "The American Dream" (the Engineer's excessive fantasy of a life in the US).
As Kim, Jennifer Paz displays a beautiful singing voice that is both delicate and strong, and effectively captures the innocence and determination of the character. Alan Gillespie had a few pitch problems in his songs (some of the weakest in an otherwise strong score) on opening night, but conveys a sense of urgency and conviction as the conflicted soldier Chris. The role of the Engineer is usually a crowd favorite, and Johann Michael Camat certainly is in this production. Though probably a little too young for the role, he portrays the slimy and scheming entrepreneur with the appropriate balance of desperation and hope. Camat has a commanding singing voice, and gets plenty of laughs as well. As Chris' friend John, D.J. Oliver overacts a bit and his singing delivery prevents full understanding of many of the lyrics. The one-named actor Tadeo is too rigid as Thuy, but Rachel Kopf sings very well in the underwritten role of Ellen. The chorus does well in playing multiple roles throughout.
Of special interest to theater fans are the scenic and directorial alterations for this tour, and many of them are dependent upon one another. The set designs by Adrian Vaux are much smaller than those used on Broadway, but are still appropriate and well rendered. The intimacy of some of the sets helps to focus the story on the characters. For "The Fall of Saigon" scene, a projection/film of a helicopter is used to great effect, thanks to expert work by Sage Marie Carter. The costumes by Andreane Neofitou and Yolan Pinter are a bit more conservative than the New York incarnations, but are fully suitable and attractive. A magnificent lighting design by Charlie Morrison adds greatly to the theatricality of the production and includes many attractive hanging lanterns for atmosphere.
For this tour, Mitchell Lemsky serves as Director and Jodi Moccia as Choreographer, both having worked on the original productions of Miss Saigon. Both base much of their work on the initial choices made by Nicholas Hytner and Bob Avian respectively, but some changes are evident. Alterations have likely been made to accommodate the changes in scenic layout, with a few scenes even taking place in different locations. The staging of "The Morning of the Dragon" is the most strikingly different and is an improvement, due both to direction and design, with each helping to clarify the time change that takes place with that scene, as well as the historical events that transpired during that time. In "The Guilt Inside Your Head (The Fall of Saigon, April 1975)," the gut-wrenching emotions of the characters and event are fully realized here, which is essential to the effectiveness of the production. One directorial choice, however, seems notably odd. "The Telephone Song" between Chris and John is now staged face to face, rather than over the phone, as the song title implies (and as it was staged in New York). The scene works, but the name of the song really needs to be tweaked if the staging is no longer over the phone!
Miss Saigon is an intriguing musical that boasts an interesting story and an emotional score. This tour is a departure from the original staging, but remains effective. If some of the supporting performances could be stronger, the cast is well anchored by its lead performers as Kim and the Engineer. Miss Saigon, presented by Big League Theatricals, continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio through December 5, 2004.