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.
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.
Still, it's succeeded anyway, because its natural operatic pretensionsaspirations?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 feelingslove, lust, duty, patriotism, guilt, greed, and countless othersare 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.
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.
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.