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Miss Saigon

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 23, 2017

Miss Saigon Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg. Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr & Alain Boublil. Adapted from the original Frech text by Alain Boublil. Additional lyrics by Michael Mahler. Directed by Laurence Connor. Musical staging and choreography by Bob Avian. Additional choreography by Geoffrey Garratt. Lighting designed by Andreane Neofitou. Design concept by Adrian Vaux. Production designed by Totie Driver & Matt Kinley. Orchestrations by William David Brohn. Cast: Jon Jon Briones, Eva Noblezada, Alistair Brammer, and Katie Rose Clarke, Nicholas Christopher, Devin Ilaw, Rachelle Ann Go. At certain performances Lianah Sta. Ana plays the role of Kim.
Theatre: Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street
Tickets: Telecharge

At least the helicopter is better.

As someone who's defended both the musical and its defining visual effect for more than two decades, it pains me to boil down the new revival of Miss Saigon to this fact, but that's what the new production at the Broadway (where the original played for nearly 10 years) amounts to. In the sweeping "fall of Saigon" scene, the chopper that lands amid much turmoil, loads on the last stragglers at the American embassy, and then takes off again looks far more realistic now than it did the first time around. Larger, struggling against the wind, rocking against the competing titanic forces of gravity and history, it's a more apt symbol than ever for not only the colossal errors made by the United States in the Vietnam War, but of the utmost of modern musical-theatre showmanship. Here, it's also the only example of either.

The Helicopter and the ensemble
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Part of this is due, of course, to the natural challenges of the material from Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics). This has never been as technically secure a show as Boublil and Schönberg's earlier smash Les Misérables; adapting Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly to reflect an inherently fraught conflict of the late 20th century would be hard enough, and doing it sensibly in the sung-through pop-opera vernacular that reigned in the 1980s and early 1990s (it opened in London in 1989, and on Broadway in 1991) only added to the troubles. If it has the tightest and most exciting story of any major entry in the genre, and a few of the best songs (the soaring "The Last Night of the World" and the wrenching "I'd Give My Life for You" are tough to beat), it also has one of the weakest overall sets of lyrics, unable to locate the precise junction of commentary and emotion required to make all this function at a textual level.

Still, it's succeeded anyway, because its natural operatic pretensions—aspirations?—elevate it to a surprisingly captivating stratum. The plot is not complicated. In the final days of the Vietnam War, American marine Chris beds the virginal Vietnamese bar girl Kim, kindling romance in both that twice leads to tragedy: first when they're separated following North Vietnam's victory, and then three years later, when fate (and Chris's remorse-stricken squadmate, John, who "bought" Kim for him) reunites them in Bangkok. But when the feelings—love, lust, duty, patriotism, guilt, greed, and countless others—are pitched high and played for keeps, as they were in Nicholas Hytner's spectacular original production and in others that followed, this becomes the most mega of megamusicals.

For this mounting, though, the writers (now joined by Michael Mahler, who provided "additional lyrics") and director Laurence Connor have striven to strip everything but the helicopter of that "mega" status. And without it, not only does Miss Saigon not work, it barely registers.

Alistair Brammer and Eva Noblezada
Photo by Matthew Murphy

This is not merely because of Connor's sluggish staging, which when it's not overly obvious (we see the bar owner, the Engineer, rescue Kim from her sacked village, even though later lyrics tell us everything we need to know) hits the brakes on an evening that ought to be in near-constant acceleration. It's also not that it's because this version looks cheap, with a set (by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, from a "design concept" by Adrian Vaux) comprising ugly poverty-poised platforms and stairs and simplistic wagons that don't effectively communicate time or place, or that it's lighted by Bruno Poet with such an emphasis on shadow that many times the actors' faces are obscured. The excellent class-defining costumes and much of the musical staging are excellent; it is likely not coincidental that they are respectively from Andreane Neofitou and Bob Avian, who worked on the original. (Geoffrey Garratt has provided "additional choreography.")

Nor is it even that the show sounds skimp, though it does. Musical director James Moore conducts a stripped-down version of William David Brohn's titanic orchestrations (18 versus 25) that can capture little of the majesty or grandeur of Schönberg's fine East-meets-West rock-meets-traditional music.

The writing, too, has flattened much of the sparkling sprawl. A lot of the time, this involves changing but not improving the lyrics: For example, "The heat is on in Saigon / Is there a war going on? / Don't ask, I ain't gonna tell" is now "The stink is making me choke / Turns out the war is a joke / Turns out the joke is on you"; the stirring "I Still Believe" has been made earthier and less affecting; and Kim and John's jointly desperate "Please" is now the unconvincingly poetic "Too Much for One Heart." Ellen, the woman who replaces Kim in Chris's life, is ill served by the wishy-washy new song "Maybe," which replaces the overly low-key "Now That I've Seen Her" without addressing its dramaturgical issues. Some lyrics have become spoken dialogue, spoiling the flow; others introduce plot inconsistencies (Chris now claims his troubles with Kim were because he was drafted, after confessing to re-upping to make sense of his life). But elements rewrites could have helped, such as Kim's protective cousin (and Communist convert) Thuy, whose political and social positioning was toned down to diminishing effect after London, have all but been left alone.

Then there are the performances, none of which rises above adequate. Eva Noblezada literally and figuratively hits all the notes of Kim (the role that made Lea Salonga a star), but projects no sense of the towering stakes or the transition she must make from girl to woman to martyr. Chris is a famously thankless part, but Alistair Brammer injects it with little urgency or confusion to explain the man's actions, and his one significant solo, "Why God Why," lacks any glimpse of the seeking soul that must fuel it if it's to be more than a hollow power ballad. Nicholas Christopher is a watery John, shrugging through what ought to be his second-act showpiece, "Bui Doi," and not letting us see the impact the war has on him. Katie Rose Clarke makes Ellen pretty and perky but not much else, and doesn't mine the weight of devotion and betrayal that must simmer within her. Devin Ilaw's Thuy comes closest to being right: still too distant, but aware of and engaged with the volatile world around him.

Jon Jon Briones and the ensemble
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Although Jonathan Pryce attracted protests for creating the half-French, half-Vietnamese Engineer (Asian-American actors have played him almost exclusively since), the character is critical. Really the co-lead, he's big comic relief in a musical that needs it: a physical embodiment and devastating critique of the sell-anything, pull-any-string mindset that propelled America into Vietnam in the first place. But Jon Jon Briones gets far fewer laughs with him than any actor I've ever seen in the part, flitting between inexplicably harsh and light-headedly blithe, and not seeming like he could take control of everything and everyone around him through sheer force of will.

This would cause his 11-o'clock showstopper, "The American Dream," in which he envisions his capitalist ideal in parodically show-biz terms, to implode, but it has no charge in it to evaporate. It looks mechanical and grotesque (the flown-in Statue of Liberty head has a mouth wide enough to devour Manhattan whole): outwardly not what the Engineer wants, but someone else's comment on it. At the performance I attended, Briones's Donald Trump ad lib only further emphasized that no one is supposed to take his fantasy seriously.

That includes him, by the way. Why should he be any different from anyone else in this Miss Saigon? No one really wants anything, so their concerns become inconsequential. And, ultimately, so does the show around them. Yes, there's still that great helicopter. But it matters a lot less when nothing else is treated as big or important enough to deserve to take flight.


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