Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The musical starts during the final days of the Vietnam War just before the fall of Saigon as 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 a pimp called The Engineer. Chris and Kim fall in love, but are separated when the Americans evacuate the city. Through many struggles and obstacles, the two eventually meet again.
The book for Miss Saigon is by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, the creators of Les Misérables. The somewhat complex plot does well in combining a touching love story, multi-dimensional characters, historical perspectives, and plenty of conflict to produce an intriguing tale. The storytelling includes a theatrically intense flashback scene and several big surprise moments for those new to the show. 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 Schönberg'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 Misérables). 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. Musical highlights include "I Still Believe," "I'd Give My Life For You," "Bui-Doi," which chronicles the plight of the children left behind by departed GIs, and "The American Dream." This production uses a new(ish) song for the character of Ellen, "Maybe."
Laurence Conner has restaged many of the London's big musicals in new touring versions, including The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, and serves as director for this production as well. This is a rough and raw look at the material, emphasizing the violence and tragedy of war. Each character onstage, even those in the background, seem to have a purpose, which adds to the realism of the piece. The staging and choreography by Bob Avian and Geoffrey Garratt are fluid, and the cultural dances help to convey the passage of time. Will Curry leads a great sounding sixteen-piece orchestra.
As Kim, Emily Bautista is aptly sympathetic and sings with excellent tone, the perfect balance of delicate simplicity and emotional power, and clarity. Anthony Festa conveys the conflicted nature of Chris, and tackles the demanding vocals of the role with skill. Red Concepcion steals many scenes as The Engineer, embodying the manipulative and sleazy nature of the scheming entrepreneur, and scoring with many of the comedic moments within the show. J. Daughtry (John) and Jinwoo Jung (Thuy) demonstrate admirable singing chops and passionate acting in support. Christine Bunuan (Gigi) and Stacie Bono (Ellen) do well in secondary roles, and each one displays fine singing. Kudos to the large ensemble for their first-rate vocals and dancing throughout.
The set designs by the late Adrian Vaux, Totie Driver, and Matt Kinley offer many intricate touches and reflect a genuine visual for the time and setting of the show. Andreane Neofitou's original costumes have been tweaked a bit, but remain fully suitable and attractive. A magnificent lighting design by Bruno Poet includes lots of shadows and muted spotlights from nearly every angle.
Miss Saigon is an intriguing musical that boasts an interesting story and an emotional score, one of the better examples of the mega-sized pop operas that so dominated the London and Broadway stages three decades ago.
Miss Saigon, through April 21, 2019, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, call 800-294-1816 or visit www.cincinnatiarts.org/aronoff-center. For more information on the tour, visit www.miss-saigon.com/us-tour.