Also see Scott's recent review of Godspell
Miss Saigon enjoyed healthy runs in London, New York, and on worldwide tours. The Victoria Theater Association - Broadway Series in Dayton, Ohio, is the first stop for the new American non-Equity tour of the show. This production, which also rehearsed in Dayton, features all new design elements and changes in direction/choreography from the original version. Even though the show is now presented in a more intimate physical scope to accommodate the smaller theaters the tour will include, the humanity of the piece, along with effective staging and the moving score, continue to make Miss Saigon an engaging musical.
The show 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 city. Despite many struggles and obstacles, the two are destined to meet again.
The book for Miss Saigon is by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the creators of Les Miserables. 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 sometimes seems overly melodramatic, the book does properly emphasize 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 quite up to the achievements of Les Miserables). Even though the lyrics to some of the ballads are a bit 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 Bergquist, does well in recreating the original orchestrations (thanks to some synthesized sounds). Musical highlights include "I Still Believe," "I'd Give My Life For You," "Bui-Doi," and "The American Dream."
As Kim, Jennifer Hubilla effectively captures the innocence of the character and sings with a light and pleasingly sweet voice. Alan Gillespie convincingly communicates the confused feelings of Chris and provides powerful vocals for his songs. The real star of the show, however, is Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer. He is near perfection as the slimy entrepreneur scheming his way towards the realization of his dreams. The commanding delivery of his vocals and strong comedic flair make Briones the crowd favorite. Wallace Smiths (John) and Byran Geli (Thuy) demonstrate admirable singing chops in support. Despite a few vocal missteps, Rachel Kopf is competent in the underwritten role of Ellen. Fine performances are turned in by all in the thirty-member cast.
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. The visual demands of "The Fall of Saigon, 1975" and "The American Dream" are accomplished in a much different manner than in the original version, but are still very effective due to additional expert work by Sage Marie Carter (and received applause for their technical achievements). 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 (one of the best this reviewer has seen) by Charlie Morrison adds greatly to the theatricality of the production.
For this non-Equity 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 (that helps to clarify the time change that takes place with that scene). 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).
Miss Saigon is an intriguing musical that boasts an interesting story and an emotional score. Fans of the show will notice a large number of changes with this new national tour, but each revision continues to support the show's script and songs. As the show embarks on its lengthy tour, audiences are likely to be moved by the timeless humanity of the tale. Miss Saigon, presented by Big League Theatricals, continues at the Victoria Theatre in Dayton, Ohio, through September 26, 2002. Tickets may be ordered by calling (937) 228-3630.