Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of Spring Awakening
In 2014, shortly before the show's 25th anniversary, a London revival was met with critical acclaim and that reimagined version went on to have a Broadway run in 2017. A national tour based on that production hit the road last year and has come to ASU Gammage for a week long run. While Miss Saigon plays somewhat into stereotypical portrayals, it has a score rich with soaring ballads and a simple yet heartbreaking story about a young Asian woman and a white American soldier who find each other toward the end of the Vietnam War. With a fantastic cast and visually stunning creative aspects, the touring production is quite impressive.
The plot of the musical is based on Madama Butterfly, the tragic opera set in early 1900s Japan that focuses on an Asian geisha named Butterfly and the American Naval officer who leaves her, unaware that she is pregnant, only to return a few years later. When she learns that he is now remarried, Butterfly makes a sacrifice to give her child a better future. In Miss Saigon, the setting was changed to Vietnam, the time to the mid-1970s, and the officer is now a sergeant in the Marine Corps named Chris who meets Kim, a young Vietnamese woman who is an orphan of the war.
The musical starts as Kim finds a job working in a bar run by a man who goes by the name The Engineer, a sleazy con man who is out to make a buck any way he can, including pimping the girls in his employ out to the soldiers. When Kim and Chris instantly fall in love, she thinks her future will be with him in America. But when Saigon falls and they get separated, a chain of events is set in motion, leading to a tragic outcome.
The musical was inspired by a magazine photograph Schönberg saw in which a Vietnamese woman is giving her child away to board an airplane for the United States to be raised by the child's father, an American GI. The score, with Schönberg's music and lyrics by Boublil and Maltby, includes soaring love songs, emotionally moving ballads, and some impressive ensemble pieces. However, while the book does a fairly good job in advancing the plot, like other big British musicals of the 1980s and 1990s, Miss Saigon is sung through, with very little spoken dialogue, and some of the sung narrative gets a little repetitive. It also has minimal subtlety in its characters, who are painted more with two-dimensional stereotypical traits than as fully fleshed out individuals.
There is also controversy behind the musical. The original London and Broadway productions featured Jonathan Pryce as The Engineer, which raised a huge issue since he was a white Englishmen playing an Asian character. The show's producer, Cameron Mcintosh, even threatened to not bring the show over from London to Broadway if he wasn't allowed to bring Pryce over with it. Fortunately, subsequent Broadway replacements, the London and Broadway revivals, and this touring cast have featured a more inclusive, accurate and authentic cast including Asian actors in appropriate roles.
However, the fact that it's a musical written entirely by white men that centers on the plight of the Vietnamese people may rub some the wrong way. Some may even squirm at the situations in the show, especially the fact that the 17-year-old Kim is basically prostituting herself to make a better life for herself, and claim it may no longer be prudent in our #metoo world to depict women being manipulated by men in order to advance their careers, or in the case of Miss Saigon, their lives. But, while it isn't specifically based on fact, this story does include an accurate historical representation of some of the situations that happened in the 1970s in Vietnam, and the character of Kim is portrayed as a woman who, while somewhat naïve at first, is also very strong. It is a tragic and truthful musical based on the sad and factual history of American soldiers in Vietnam and the women they met there and the unfortunate circumstances that followed, for the children that some of these women bore, the impact the events had on the American soldiers stationed there when they returned home, and for the people of Vietnam.
Emily Bautista is powerful and emotionally thrilling as Kim. Her singing voice is rich and bright and soars with emotion fused into every lyric. Kim is on a journey of survival. Everything she does is intended to make life better for herself or for her child. She never gives up hope and in Bautista's superb and clearly etched performance we see how Kim goes from a scared girl to a woman who finds strength.
As The Engineer, Red Concepcion is full of energy and charisma. The Engineer is a swindler and a con man, and Concepcion has the style, personality and flair needed to accurately make the audience sympathize with the predicament he's up against, even though we clearly know that just about everything he does is for his own personal interests.
Chris is haunted by the events of his past, and Anthony Festa does a very good job in providing some layers to the character. His singing voice is exceptional and he hits some impressive high notes. He and Bautista also infuse their moments together with an intense passion. As Chris' American wife Ellen, Ellie Fishman, who made her tour debut on the opening night of the run here in Tempe, does very good in the mostly underwritten role and exhibits a nice sense of awareness and contemplation into her solo "Maybe." J. Daughtry delivers a strong portrayal of Chris's friend John. His solo "Bui Doi" is superb. Jinwoo Jung is excellent at Thuy, the man who was bound at a young age to Kim by both of their fathers. He has a commanding stage presence and a crystal-clear singing voice that soars.
Laurence Connor's direction is good and he adds some nice, fresh touches to try to provide some additional character development that wasn't in the original production. The musical staging by Bob Avian, who worked on the original London and New York productions, with additional musical staging by Geoffrey Garratt for this production, creates a steady stream of impressive stage images. The original productions were well known for their ability to depict a helicopter landing on the stage, and production designers Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, with a design concept by Adrian Vaux and projections by Luke Halls, deliver that well-known moment and many other impressive visual images throughout the show. Costume designer Andreane Neofitou, who also did the costumes for the original productions thirty years ago, has created some period perfect designs. Bruno Poet's lighting is simply stunning.
Seeing Miss Saigon today, the plot seems somewhat more predictable and melodramatic from when I first saw it almost thirty years ago. I also wonder if the fact that the Vietnam War is now 30 years further behind us and that Vietnam is now a vacation destination has softened some of the emotional relevance of the time period and the feeling an audience now has concerning the impact the war had on the Vietnamese people. Fortunately, the musical is still moving, especially in the arc of Kim's character and the intense hope she has that Chris will return, and there is a stirring theatrical sense about the show in the way the structure of the plot uses shifts in time and flashbacks to advance the narrative and how many scenes explode into elaborate production numbers. Also, while it's an epic romance of two young people set against the historical event of the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon in 1975, the issues and topics it focuses on, from the plight of the immigrants trying to find a better future for themselves to America's involvement in other country's wars, and the subjugation of women, are still incredibly relevant today.
Miss Saigon runs through September 29th, 2019, at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480-965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit www.miss-saigon.com/us-tour.
Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg