Review: ‘Miss Saigon’ at Pantages, despite its inevitable insensitivities, surprisingly resonates
“I’m an American. How can I fail to do good?”
That’s the rhetorical question sung by the ex-G.I. Chris in the musical “Miss Saigon,” which opened last week at the Hollywood Pantages — one that resonates differently now than it would have in 1978, when the scene is set, and in 1991, when the musical premiered on Broadway.
This national tour of the 2017 “Miss Saigon” Broadway revival, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and directed by Laurence Connor, arrives with exceptional production values, including an enormous company and scenic design (by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley from Adrian Vaux’s concept) more immersive and dazzling than many rides at Universal Studios. The choreography (by Bob Avian) is so vivid it could put your eye out, even if you’re sitting in the back.
The late William David Brohn’s orchestrations — inventive, bombastic, with a mind of their own — cry out for constant attention, so that the powerful singers have to fight to be heard, sometimes going red in the face. The lyrics are often casualties of this struggle — especially in the first act. Although you have a general sense of what’s going on, you might wish you could hit pause and sort out the details. The intermission comes as a welcome respite. It’s also a good time to brace yourself emotionally for the heartache to come.
I wasn’t expecting to cry at the end. Going in, I was most excited about the legendary helicopter — weird, since I don’t care about helicopters in real life. A stage helicopter is something else though, and this one lived up to my expectations.
I had complicated feelings about seeing “Miss Saigon” at all, given its history, and I had planned to watch it with the dispassionate eye of a cultural critic and/or historian. Not as a sniveling mess.
The Vietnamese American playwright Qui Nguyen (“Vietgone,” “Poor Yella Rednecks”), whose work I love, has made no secret of his dislike for “Miss Saigon.” He described it to American Theatre’s Diep Tran in 2017 as “melodramatic white-savior fantasia claptrap that’s barely more than a modern-day ‘Mikado.’” He wouldn’t let his own sons watch it, he said, explaining, “I don’t want them to ever feel like they’re the accessory to the dominant culture, which is what ‘Miss Saigon’ makes me feel.”
Written by composer Claude-Michel Schoenberg and lyricist Alain Boublil (with Richard Maltby Jr.) as a follow-up to their “Les Miserables,” “Miss Saigon” is an adaptation of the 1904 Puccini opera “Madama Butterfly.” The plot, in which a U.S. naval officer stationed in Japan marries and then abandons a young woman, who then bears his son and commits suicide, lends itself almost seamlessly to war-era Vietnam, but it comes with a healthy dose of 19th century melodrama and Orientalism already baked in. It sparked controversy from the outset.
Jonathan Pryce, the Welsh actor who originated the role of the Eurasian pimp known as the Engineer, wore “eye prosthetics” in the London production (in 1989). After an outcry over “yellow face” casting, Pryce didn’t wear the prosthetics on Broadway, and he won a Tony. But in revivals ever since, Asian American actors have played the Engineer. (Red Concepción, in the current production, is irresistibly charismatic and endearing, despite embodying the most craven and vile opportunism imaginable.) The original faux-Vietnamese lyrics in the Act I song “The Wedding Ceremony” have long been replaced with actual Vietnamese.
So it’s gotten less culturally insensitive over its lifetime, but “Miss Saigon” still portrays the Vietnam war and its aftermath from an American point of view.
The story begins in Saigon near the end of the war, in the Engineer’s whorehouse, Dreamland. Beautiful girls in bikinis gyrate for appreciative American soldiers. The Engineer is especially psyched about his newest recruit, a 17-year-old country virgin, Kim (Emily Bautista), whom he hopes will command a high price. Sure enough, G.I. John (J. Daughtry) buys a whole night with Kim for his gloomy buddy Chris (Anthony Festa). Chris is almost too jaded to accept the gift, but when he figures out that the Engineer will beat Kim up otherwise, he agrees to spend the night with her.
We’re never told exactly what goes down in that bamboo-walled room, but it’s obviously awesome, because Chris falls in love with Kim the next morning, somewhere between an anguished soul-searching solo and a throbbing nose-to-nose duet. Their ceremonial wedding at Dream Land doesn’t come off perfectly — Kim’s jilted hometown fiancé, Thuy (Jinwoo Jung), briefly barges in — but their love survives the interruption, and they scare Thuy away and happily plan a future in America.
So it’s a shock when the action abruptly cuts to three years later. North and South Vietnam are united under communist rule. Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City, and its seedy wartime nightlife has been replaced by militaristic parades and red flags. The skeezy old Engineer is still around, professing to have reformed, but then Thuy, who has somehow become a powerful commissar, shows up wanting to track Kim down, so the Engineer resumes pimp work.
It turns out that Kim never made it to America. When the Engineer finds her living on the street, Thuy marches in to propose marriage, but she refuses all his enticements, even as they segue into death threats. Finally she confesses a secret: She won’t betray Chris because she had his son, a heartbreakingly adorable little boy named Tam (Adalynn Ng on opening night, sharing the role with three other children). Thuy then threatens to kill Tam, so Kim shoots Thuy. The conniving Engineer is on the scene and takes Kim and Tam under his wing, hoping the soldier’s son will be his ticket to America.
Then it’s intermission, and anybody in the audience who doesn’t know the story after all these years and is still feeling hopeful is in for terrible disappointment. I can’t bear to recap the Act II plot except to say that back in America, faithless Chris has married a blond named Ellen (Stacie Bono), who is good-hearted and well-meaning and the fictional character I now hate the most except for Chris.
“Miss Saigon” certainly can’t be accused of making America look heroic; it stringently maintains we made a mess in Vietnam and then bailed without cleaning it up. But underpinning this critique is the pernicious myth of America as savior. If America had managed to win the war, it’s implied, then the Vietnamese would have been able to come to America, or Vietnam itself would have become more American.
America’s self-image has taken plenty of hits since Vietnam — for example, the Gulf War in 1991, when “Miss Saigon” arrived on Broadway. Today, it’s impossible to watch Kim and Tam’s struggles without thinking of the family separations and inhumane conditions happening at our southern border. The musical remains vital not in its representation of Vietnamese culture or people — with luck, contemporary playwrights will fill our stages with many others — but as a warning to us. Being American doesn’t mean we’re good.
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