Thursday, January 31, 2019
Reimagined “Miss Saigon” gets standing “O” at the Connor Palace, but . . .
Before you ask, “Yes, a helicopter lands on stage in the touring production of “Miss Saigon,” now on stage at the KeyBank State Theatre, but, as with the production itself there is a “but . . .”.
The Vietnamese are the sixth largest immigrant nationality group in the United States. More than one million Vietnamese came to America after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Over 4,000 of those now call Northeast Ohio their home.
These people, many products of American GI and Vietnamese combined parenthood, the military veterans of the Vietnam “conflict,” and musical theater aficionados are the stake-holders in Claude-Michel Schonberg, Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil ‘s “Miss Saigon.”
When the show first opened, first in London, and then on Broadway, the big excitement was the “real” helicopter landing on stage. The anticipation over experiencing the technical achievement was so great that the show opened to huge pre-ticket sales, in spite of mediocre reviews of the production in both venues.
That staging was also noted for the controversy concerning Jonathan Price, a Caucasian, portraying The Engineer, a pimp and proprietor of a Saigon bar. He wore eye prostheses and bronzing cream to make himself look more Asian which drew comments calling “Miss Saigon” a “minstrel show.”
Finally, the focus shifted to the important issue, that this, like its sister show, “Les Miserables,” by the same writing team, was well-crafted, had a raw human storyline and a soaring score. These songs include “The Heat is On in Saigon,” “The Movie in My Mind,” “Last Night of the World” and “American Dream.”
“Miss Saigon,” in an operetta format with few spoken lines, tells the story of Kim, a young Vietnamese woman who is forced to work in a bar run by a notorious character known as the Engineer. There she meets and falls in love with Chris, an American G.I., but they are torn apart by the fall of Saigon.
Unable to get on the last helicopter evacuating troops and civilians from the country, Kim goes on a three-year journey of survival with her son, Tam.
Chris is unaware that he fathered the child until, while attending a meeting of Vietnam vets he is told of the boy’s existence. He and his wife, Ellen, must decide what action or lack of action they should take regarding Kim and Tam.
Cameron Mackintosh, the show’s producer, said of this tour of the reimagined show, “It’s hard to believe that it has been over 27 years since “Miss Saigon” first opened in North America but, if anything, the tragic love story at the heart of the show has become even more relevant today with innocent people being torn apart by war all over the world.”
This new production, as directed by Laurence Connor, is not a duplicate of the old, but “features new visual images, made possible by the development of new electronic devices and a cast of 42 Asian and Western performers,” thus avoiding the “white-casting” issue of the original.
This interpretation also highlights the plight of the Vietnamese women who were bought and sold as prostitutes and the resulting mixed race children, who were/are scorned by locals and uncared for by their absent fathers.
Still in place is much of the original choreography by Bob Avian, though it now takes a grittier, more realistic approach that magnifies the power and epic sweep of Boublil and Schönberg’s emotional score.
And, yes, the helicopter lands on stage. Well, sort of. The electronically visualized helicopter “flies” over the heads of the audience via lighting effects and appears to land. In contrast to the prolonged visual and emotional effect of the landing in London, Broadway and local stagings I saw, there was nary a gasp or any hand-clapping for this version.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only problem. The overly loud sound system, had the orchestra drowning out the singers, the voices the singers often sounding “tinny,” as well as the direction which created high-level chaos in almost every scene. Yes, these were times of emotional bedlam, but some texturing of pace was needed to add realism to the goings on and breathing time for the audience.
Emily Bautista was well-cast as Kim. Rather than going with the traditional beautiful porcelain doll actresses, often cast for the role in the past, the tall, inhibited Bautista brought a realism to the part. Her beautiful voice and her emotional awareness was well displayed in “I’d Give My Life for You” and “Little God of My Heart.”
Her duets with Anthony Festa (Chris), which included “The Last Night of the World” and “Sun and Moon” were encompassing.
Local theater-goes may remember Bautista for her portrayal of Éponine in the national tour of “Les Misérables.” (At certain performances, the role of Kim will be played by Myra Molloy.)
Festa was also cast against type. Usually the role is given to a handsome Broadway leading man-type. Festa seems to have been chosen, instead, because of his beautiful voice and strong acting skills.
Though wishing Festa no ill, it would be a treat for CLE audiences to get the chance to see one of their own, Paul Schwensen, who understudies the role of Chris, get to play the role in his home town.
Schwensen graduated from Vermillion High School in 2013, where he was mentored by Ted Williams, who was head of the Vermillion theater program and directed Paul and his parents at Lorain Music Theater. Paul played Ren in the 2017 production of “Footloose” at Kent State’s Porthouse theater, where he got his equity card.
Red Concepcion, The Engineer, yelled his way through the role failing to texture his performance, thus creating a one-dimensional manipulator. On the positive side, his “The American Dream” received extended applause from the audience.
Young Jace Chen was appealing as Kim and Chris’s son. (The part is multi-cast so different audiences will see different Tams.
The dancing was powerful, well-executed and spell-binding, the costumes era correct, and the lighting effects helped set the morbid and intense feelings throughout the show.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Miss Saigon” is a powerful piece of musical theater, with a vital story and soaring music. It tells a tale of historical significance, not sugarcoating the conflict, the effect of the presence of American GI’s on the Vietnamese population, and the human chaos that was left behind. The impressive touring production was hampered by an overly loud sound system which had the orchestra drowning out the singers and direction, which resulted in overblown chaos in almost every scene.
“Miss Saigon” runs through February 17, 2019 as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series. To purchase tickets, visit playhousesquare.org, call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org.