Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Except, perhaps, San Francisco audiences who should be storming the ticket windows to secure their ducats for this stupendous new Cameron Mackintosh production. This is spectacle on an operatic level, eliciting gasps of awe and delight at virtually every scene change and thunderous applause for the massive (and highly talented) cast.
Miss Saigon tells the story of Kim (Emily Bautista), a 17-year-old girl from the countryside who travels to Saigon after her parents have been killed. Kim ends up under the wing of The Engineer (Red Concepción), a pimp who runs Dreamland, a bar where GIs come to drink and get laid and where Kim is mocked for her innocence by the other girls, including Gigi Van Tranh (Christine Bunuan), the "sex toy from Hanoi." Bunuan spits out her portions of "The Movie in My Mind" with a ferocity that tells us all we need to know about the distance that exists between the bargirls and their dreams of better lives.
Though she is lowest on the seniority ladder, it is Kim who comes closest to achieving the dream when Chris (Anthony Festa) steps into Dreamland and almost immediately falls in love with her, promising to take her back to the United States. But the war intervenes and Chris is unable to leave his base to retrieve Kim before the Americans are forced to evacuate the embassy.
Although the lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil lack the clever rhymes and turns of phrase one expects from the best musical theatre (Sondheim, Hammerstein, Miranda, et al.) and there's a great deal of operatic recitative, Schönberg's music has more than enough soaring melodies, and the lush orchestrations by William David Brohn perfectly complement the absolutely spectacular staging that is the highlight of this production.
It would be hard to overstate the scope and scale of the spectacle created by the design team: Adrian Vaux (design concept), Totie Driver and Matt Kinley (production design), Bruno Poet (lighting design), Mick Potter (sound design), and Andreane Neofitou (costume design). The helicopter sounds, plus explosions and gunfire that begin the proceedings probably triggered more than one PTSD response, given the volume and dimensionality they achieve in the Orpheum Theatre. The lighting is gorgeous throughout, but there is an especially lovely moment early on when individual spots capture each of the bargirls' faces, reminding us of the humanity and vulnerability of girls who might otherwise feel anonymous. The set changes smoothly between each scene, and each new look feels gritty or grand as required. And when some of the action shifts to Bangkok in act two, the recreation of a district like Patpong is stunning beyond description.
In this massive environment of structure, light and color, the cast (all 40+ of them) face the daunting challenge of how to stand out. Although there are no weak team members, Red Concepción's Engineer seizes the stage with such force of personality that it's no wonder it was his entry at curtain call that brought the majority of the audience to their feet. When he's on stage, it's as if he is compelling you to watch himyou look away at the peril of missing even a moment of his performance.
Anthony Festa and Emily Bautista bring strong, clear voices to the unlikely romance of their characters, but the chemistry between them is just slightly offthough this may be due more to the meager justification of why their love blossoms so quickly (both are under prodigious levels of stress, and each other's arms serve as their only respite) than to the skills of the two performers.
The story itself is rather predictable. Even factoring in the fact that its inspiration is a well-known opera, we sense what's coming long before each plot point actually arrives. But when a musical is as lavishly staged and thrillingly performed as this Miss Saigon, we're willing to forgive its predictability because we are visually and aurally surprised and delighted at every turn. There are at least a dozen moments when I felt myself shaking my head in disbelief at the gorgeousness of it all.
One warning to ticket buyers: this is not a family-friendly musical. Its main characters are prostitutes, pimps, and profanity-spewing soldiersand behave and speak as such.
Miss Saigon, through November 4, 2018, at SHN's Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $56 - $256, and are available by calling the box office at 888-746-1799 or by visiting SHNSF.com. For more information on the tour, visit www.miss-saigon.com/us-tour.