America’s involvement in the nightmarish Vietnam War has inspired a plethora of cinematic dramas, most notably “The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Born on the Fourth of July.”
The realm of musical theater has been a comparatively barren field, yet one show stands out with enough visceral power to match these movies. That would be “Miss Saigon,” currently paying a powerful return visit to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Created by “Les Miserables” playwrights Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, with lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr., “Miss Saigon” is a searing account of love and loss in wartime. Director Laurence Connor has mounted an emotionally throbbing touring production rich in vocal excellence.
Particularly moving is the lustrous Emily Bautista as Kim, an innocent Vietnamese girl drawn into a bawdy atmosphere (much like Fantine in “Les Miz”) where she meets and falls in love with an earnest young soldier. Bautista’s glorious singing voice is matched by her fervent dramatic performance.
Anthony Festa enacts the conflicted G.I., Chris, with passion and power, as well as a strong vocal talent. His torment on being separated from his love as the war ends is brutally realistic.
Billed above both but far less significant is the Engineer, a glorified pimp who plies his flesh trade in Saigon and Bangkok while dreaming of conquering America. Red Concepción enacts this character — reminiscent of Thénardier in “Les Miz” — with rancid fervor, but vocal clarity is not among his strong suits.
Strong supporting performances are delivered by J. Daughtry as John, Chris’ wartime buddy who becomes an advocate for children left behind, and Ellie Fishman, Chris’ American wife Ellen, who belts out a heart-wrenching scene with Kim late in the show.
A key factor in “Miss Saigon” is Thuy, Kim’s onetime paramour who rises to prominence in the North Vietnamese regime. Jinwoo Jung delivers a chilling enactment of this dominant character.
Particularly effective is the depiction of panic and desperation as the last helicopter leaves Saigon. Ensemble excellence also is portrayed at a very high caliber.
“Miss Saigon” is a grim reminder of the war’s cost in both dollars and human lives as well as its emotional consequences. It’s a powerful blast from the past at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
IF YOU GO
What: “Miss Saigon”
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 7:30, Sundays at 1 and 6:30 until Oct. 13
Cost: Starts at $40
Information: (714) 556-2787; scfta.org