– By Cate Marquis –
MISS SAIGON, and its helicopter, return to the Fox stage, Apr. 23-May 5, in a Broadway revival of the searing hit musical set during and after the Vietnam War. The story of young lovers, a Vietnamese girl and American soldier, takes place against the backdrop of the fall of Saigon and the war’s aftermath. This new Cameron Mackintosh production of Boublil and Schonberg’s dramatic musical is grittier and more realistic than the 1990 Broadway hit, but still a big, bold blockbuster show.
Producer Cameron Mackintosh and creators Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil are the forces behind another blockbuster dramatic musical LES MISERABLES, which also played this Fox earlier this year. So this is a team that really knows how present this kind of epic production.
Beside being a Tony Award-winner, MISS SAIGON has another claim to fame, as it was one of the first touring Broadway shows to feature really big sets and required enormous stages. One of the biggest props of the original tour was the helicopter that appears on stage in the second act, and at least some audience members bought tickets in a part to experience that amazing feat of staging. The helicopter is still there in this revival, but in a somewhat different form that is combined with video production.
MISS SAIGON last appeared at the Fox in 2000, when the Vietnam War and images of the fall of Saigon were more likely to be part of the memories of audience members. In 2019, Vietnam is more history for many in the audience, and the new production accommodates that with more background detail for the period. Still, the story’s tale of young lovers separated by war remains timeless.
The story is essentially “Madame Butterfly,” one of the most dramatic and tragic of operas. Kim (Emily Bautista) a 17-year-old country girl orphaned by the war, arrives in bawdy wartime Saigon in 1975, shortly before the fall of the city to North Vietnamese forces. She is picked by a sleazy bar owner known as the Engineer (Red Concepción), who plans to put her to work in his bar-brothel Dreamland with the other bar-girl/prostitutes. But the innocent Kim is quickly rescued by American serviceman Chris (Anthony Festa), who essentially buys her from the Engineer. They fall in love, and there is a ceremony which Kim knows is a wedding although Chris does not understand that, but the couple is separated when Saigon falls not long after. Years later, Chris returns to Southeast Asia to search for her in Bangkok after learning Kim bore him a son.
The cast is rounded out by J. Daughtry as Chris’ friend and fellow G.I., Christine Bunuan as Gigi, one of the girls at the Engineer’s bar in Saigon and Jinwoo Jung plays Thuy, a North Vietnamese officer who was Kim’s childhood friend and is in love with her. Stacie Bono plays Chris’ American wife Ellen. Jace Chen is one of several cute kids who play Chris’ and Kim’s son Tam.
The cast is excellent and there are plenty of big production numbers, although the show does not have as many memorable songs as Les Miz.
As Kim, Emily Bautista carries a lot of the emotional weight of the show, and she shines in the role. One of her biggest showstopper numbers is the poignant “The Movie In My Mind,” in which young Kim dreams of another kind of life. The musical’s most dramatic number is in the second act, “Kim’s Nightmare (Fall of Saigon 1975),” where she remembers the haunting, horrifying events that separated her and Chris.
The Engineer functions as both a villain and comic relief, much like Thenardier in Les Miz, and Philippines-born Red Concepcion makes the most of the showman-like role. He is featured as a comic product of “re-education” in “The Morning of the Dragon” as the North Vietnamese Communists celebrate their ascendancy with military marches. His big showstopper is in the second act, a fantastic fantasy piece call “The American Dream.”
Like Les Miz, this story is rather dark for a musical. One of the tragic themes of the story, besides the devastation and upheaval of war, is the fate of Amer-Asian children, half American and half Vietnamese, that the G.I.s left behind. The mixed race children were called “bui-doi” and were often disdained and not regarded as citizens. A scene with Chris’s friend John, as one of many veterans working to rescue these children, highlights the issue.
MISS SAIGON retains all the epic grandeur and tragic power of the original, while the additions make it more accessible for a new generation of theatergoers. It remains a must-see for anyone who admires Broadway musicals.
© Cate Marquis