The first Broadway revival of Miss Saigon is being marketed as the return of a classic. But, if the show has become an undeniable fan favorite, the production’s impressive visual spectacle, lively staging and crowd-pleasing vocal calisthenics cannot completely mask a script that leans heavily on emotional manipulation and one-dimensional storytelling.
Miss Saigon is loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, about the doomed love of a Japanese woman for a U.S. Naval officer in the early 1900s. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg moved the setting to Vietnam in 1975, just as the U.S. military was about to evacuate South Vietnam, leaving it to the Communists of the North. Miss Saigon turns the cold-hearted Naval officer into a hunky American G.I., Chris (Alistair Brammer), and the Japanese woman into Kim (Eva Noblezada), a recently orphaned 17-year-old Vietnamese peasant who moves to Saigon and desperately joins Dreamland, a bar and brothel run by a sleazy Eurasian bar-owner and pimp named the Engineer (Jon Jon Briones.) Chris is too decent to frequent a house of prostitution, and Kim is a virgin; nonetheless Chris becomes her (first) client. They fall in love. But Chris is forced to leave the country without her. Three years later, we learn, Kim has had Chris’s child, Tam. In the interim, Chris has taken an American wife.
This would surely be more moving if the creative team had opted for more nuance. Instead, for example, they create the villain Thuy (Devin Ilaw), Kim’s cousin who was to be her husband in an arranged marriage by their parents. Thuy is not just Kim’s second choice; he is a brute. And he’s not just a brute; he becomes a “commisar” in the new Communist government and tries to force Kim to marry him, threatening her and her child.
Then there is the outright manipulation at the top of Act II, when Chris’s GI buddy John (Nicholas Christopher) – the one who paid for him to have sex with Kim — gives a lecture in Atlanta about the Amerasian children left in Vietnam, singing:
“They’re called Bui Doi
the dust of life
conceived in hell
and born in strife”
As he sings, we see film clips of adorable orphans. My better self could probably be persuaded to see this as the creative team’s effort to bring an actual issue to light, rather than how my critical self sees it – as a cheap way to piggyback on the natural emotions the audience would feel for such children.
Perhaps a miraculous cast could take such blunt-force emotional instruments and soften them into credibility. Much has been made of Eva Noblezada’s exquisite voice. Indeed, the entire principal cast – largely transferred intact from the 2014 London production – exhibits tremendous vocal chops. If the new Miss Saigon is powerful, it’s because of the powerhouse singing. Nicholas Christopher, a Broadway veteran of Motown and Hamilton, is a welcome American addition. Jon Jon Briones gives a memorable performance in “American Dream,” an over-the-top showstopper that features a Cadillac, a backdrop of the Statue of Liberty and a sequined and tuxedoed chorus line.
But last year, in my local movie theater, I saw the HD broadcast of the London production of Miss Saigon, and because it was in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the show, it included an after-show concert that featured performances by original cast members, most notably Lea Salonga as Kim and Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer. A well-meaning touch, this did the current cast no favors. Even 25 years later, Salonga and Pryce were spectacular, helping explain why that first production was such a success despite all the controversies at the time.
When Miss Saigon opened on Broadway in 1991, there were protests that the cast had too few Asian Americans; others complained about the then-outrageous top ticket price of $100. All that died down long before the original production finished its run a decade later, making it the 13th longest running show in Broadway history.
In fairness, the Miss Saigon revival that has now opened at the Broadway Theatre delivers on the thrills that its fans are surely expecting. Although Laurence Connor replaces the director of the original production (Nicholas Hytner), Bob Avian is credited with the musical staging, as he was in the original Broadway production (now with “additional choreography” by Geoffrey Garrett.), and the production also employs several designers from the 1991 production. The first 20 minutes knock us out with continuous activity — color and movement; grit and razzmatazz and pizzazz — and we are never far from some exciting spectacles. This of course includes (albeit oddly inserted as a flashback in the middle of Act II) that full-sized helicopter landing on the roof of the American embassy. The excess is electrifying, but also, in its familiarity, almost comforting.
Miss Saigon is on stage at the Broadway Theater (1681 Broadway, between 52nd and 52r Streets, New York, N.Y. 10019) through January 13, 2018.
Tickets and details
Miss Saigon . Book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil, additional lyrics by Michael Mahler. Directed by Laurence Connor, musical staging by Bob Avian, additional choreography by Geoffrey Garratt. Production Design by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, design concept by Adrian Vaux, costume design by Andreane Neofitou, lighting design by Bruno Poet, sound design by Mick Potter, projection design by Luke Halls. Featuring Eva Noblezada, Jon Jon Briones, Alistair Brammer, Katie Rose Clarke, Rachel Ann Go, Devin Ilaw, Nicholas Christopher. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.