Miss Saigon premiered at London's Theatre Royal on September 20, 1989, and closed on October 30, 1999, after 4,264 performances. It opened on Broadway on April 11, 1991, at the Broadway Theatre, and closed on January 28, 2001, after 4,092 performances. The Broadway production was one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history, and received four Drama Desk Awards and three Tony Awards. Like Madama Butterfly, the musical is loosely based on actual events. The inspiration for the musical was reportedly a photograph Claud-Michel Schönberg found in a magazine. The photo showed a Vietnamese mother leaving her child at a departure gate at Tan Son Nhut Airbase to board a plane headed for the United States, because the child's father, who was an ex-GI, would be in a position to provide a much better life for the child in the US.
The setting of the plot is Saigon during the Vietnam War. A French-Vietnamese man called The Engineer is the owner of the sleazy club Dreamland, where American servicemen come to drink and party with prostitutes. There, a sergeant named Chris meets an orphaned, 17-year-old virgin named Kim, who is working her first night as a "bar girl" in Dreamland. The two fall in love over the next few weeks, and are joined in a wedding ceremony held by the other girls who work at Dreamland. Their happiness is interrupted by the arrival of Kim's cousin Thuy. Thuy, who is an officer in the North Vietnamese Army, is also the man to whom Kim was betrothed at the age of 13, and he is angered by her refusal to go away with him. Though he tries, Chris is unable to take Kim with him when the Vietcong take control of the city and he is forced to leave. Three years later, Chris is living in the U.S. and married to a woman named Ellen when he discovers that Kim is still alive, and that he has a son by her named Tam. Back in Saigon (now named Ho Chi Minh City) Kim has lived an impoverished life, turning aside the attentions of Thuy as she faithfully awaits the return of Chris. Chris and Ellen travel to Bangkok to meet with Kim and Tam, each with a different version of what it is they wish to happen as a result of this meeting. The ending to their visit is both poignant and powerful in its views of sacrifice and love.
Herman Sebek is truly spectacular as The Engineer. He surely owns the smooth and villainous comedy of this role. He is in complete control when onstage in songs like "If You Want To Die In Bed" and "The American Dream." At first, EJ Zimmerman has a voice that sounds too small for the role of Kim. But as the show progresses she demonstrates her strength through her vocal stamina, and the simple purity of her sound is well matched to the nature of her character. It is nicely juxtaposed with the strong, mature sound of Amy Miller Brennan who plays Ellen in the song "I Still Believe." Moments like the second act hotel scene with Ellen show that Zimmerman is also a fine actress in this difficult role. A handsome Christopher deProphetis, who plays Chris, is lacking some of the acting maturity called for in his role as a true leading man. Though some moments are right on, other acting moments are very presentationally musical theatre, and regardless of how much kissing goes on, he doesn't have believable physical chemistry with Zimmerman. Chris-Ian Sanchez, who plays Thuy, has a legit singing voice that is glorious. He is guilty of some major over-acting in the last few seconds of his death scene, however, and it comes off as melodrama. Darryl Reuben Hall is a bit inconsistent as John. His voice and body do not always match what is going on in his eyes and on his face. His rendition of "Bui Doi" is the most enjoyable one I have ever heard, and he really makes it his own. Making a song your own is not always a compliment however, as this is not "American Idol," and you do not get to sing however you want. While I liked the gospel feel of all his ornamentations, one can not help but think that if the composers had wanted it sung that way, they would have written it that way. Unless you are doing an adaptation or modernization of the work, or the composer has submitted a rewrite, changing one song for a performer (regardless of how well it is done) amounts to nothing more than musical masturbation. While it is true that 90% of the audience will never know the difference, it is not just about pleasing the audience, it is about respecting the composer. Quite frankly, Carbonell winning musical director Eric Alsford knows better.
Prior to the opening of this production of Miss Saigon the audience was abuzz discussing how the Actors' Playhouse was going to handle the famous helicopter scene. No need to worry, as the scenic, sound and light design all work together to create the moment quite effectively. The large body of the helicopter is lowered upstage from the ceiling. As the citizens of Saigon clamor at the embassy gates, the search light scans the audience, and the sound of helicopter blades are strong enough to rumble in your chest. Amid the mist, the soldiers appear to board just in time for the helicopter to ascend. Costuming is appropriately tacky for the Dreamland girls, and there is the subtle general feel of grit just beneath the surface of it all. The male ensemble for this show is strong in singing and dancing. They do double duty as GI's and tourists, and their voices are especially good on the song "Bui Doi." The female ensemble does not fare as well vocally though they do have strong acting moments. This was most noticeable on the song "Dju Voi Vai" which would have been hauntingly beautiful if not for the first sopranos being both weak and flat. A disappointing musical moment from the pit came with the song "Last Night Of The World," which includes lyrics which repeatedly say "a song played on a solo saxophone," and features a saxophone. Yet in this production with nine live musicians, the saxophone sounds completely synthesized. If it was live, it was some of the worst sax playing I have heard, and it certainly damages the romance of the moment.
This production of Miss Saigon is splendid in spots and is worth seeing, but doesn't quite measure up to the high standards established by Actors' Playhouse in last year's standout production of Les Miserables.
In addition to their work on Miss Saigon, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil also wrote music and lyrics for the musicals Les Miserables, La Revolution Francaise, Martin Guerre and their new musical The Pirate Queen. For Miss Saigon they were joined by lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr.. His other works include Starting Here, Starting Now, Ain't Misbehavin', Baby, Closer Than Ever, Song And Dance and Nick and Nora.
Miss Saigon appears through April 4, 2010 at the Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables. Actors' Playhouse is a Florida Presenting Cultural Organization and a nonprofit professional regional theatre hiring local and non-local Equity and non-Equity actors. In addition to its Mainstage season, Actors' Playhouse produces a year-round five-show season of Musical Theatre for Young Audiences, a National Children's Theatre Festival, and a Theatre Conservatory and Summer Camp Program. Actors' Playhouse is located at 280 Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, Florida. Information and tickets may be obtained by contacting the theater at their box office at (305) 444-9293, or online at www.actorsplayhouse.org.
*Designates a member of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.