Using four of the leads from the recent London production, director Laurence Connor (the charming School of Rock and the cut-down and reconceived Les Miserables) and choreographer/musical stager Bob Avian (co-choreographer on A Chorus Line and the original Miss Saigon) have created a cinematic, eye-filling staging which is always riveting, though it may ultimately be less than the sum of its parts. With a cast of 34 performers on stage, the production looks bigger than the original one, but in fact it is smaller by two. All of the famous, well-known songs (with English language lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Boublil, and additional lyrics by Michael Mahler) are in place such as “The Heat Is On in Saigon,” “The Movie in My Mind,” “Sun and Moon,” “The Last Night of the World,” “I’d Give My Life for You,” and “The American Dream” and work even better than remembered. The New York revival also has several songs added to the 2014 London revival.
The plot of Miss Saigon has an interesting pedigree. Its original source material, an American short story by John Luther Long set in Japan, was first published in a magazine in 1898. It came to the attention of legendary producer/playwright David Belasco who dramatized it as a one-act play on a double bill in 1900. Italian composer Giacomo Puccini (whose modus operandi was to see plays in languages he did not know and if he could feel the emotions he knew he had his next project) saw the play in London later that year. His opera, Madama Butterfly, originally unsuccessful, premiered in 1904. Boublil and Schönberg were reputedly inspired by a photograph in a magazine that they came upon by accident which showed a Vietnamese mother leaving her child at an airplane departure gate in order to fly to the United States to join the child’s American father. Their updated version of the story now set in Saigon and Bangkok had its world premiere in London in 1989, before opening in New York two years later.
When Miss Saigon was originally produced in New York, the Vietnam War was still fresh in people’s minds and they reacted to it accordingly. Now the themes of refugees and immigration quotas are once again making the story topical. The show’s virulent anti-Americanism now seems more palatable considering the international backslash to U.S. foreign policy and the age of terrorism that has become the status quo. This almost entirely sung-through musical begins in April 1975 at a Saigon bar and brothel called “Dreamland” which the U.S. marines frequent to meet Vietnamese party girls. The owner is a French-Vietnamese pimp and hustler nicknamed The Engineer.
He arrives with Kim, a 17-year-old orphan from the country, who has just arrived looking for work. As the other girls get ready for the nightly Miss Saigon Contest, Chris, a G.I. brought to the club by his more worldly friend John, sees her and is immediately smitten as is she. They end up spending the night together and Chris arranges leave to spend time with her. When they arrange a sort of wedding ceremony, it is interrupted by Thuy, Kim’s cousin, now a North Vietnamese officer who has been engaged to her since she was 13 years old. She sends him on his way telling him that since both of her parents have been killed the betrothal is null and void.
The story jumps ahead to 1978 in what is now Ho Chi Minh City. Thuy, now a commissar in the new Communist government, gets The Engineer to take him to Kim, now obviously separated from Chris. Kim has a three-year-old son Tam that he has fathered, and she awaits his return. Kim and Tam escape with the help of The Engineer to Bangkok who,m when he finds out that the child has an American father, believes this can be his meal ticket to a U.S.visa.
In the second act we discover, just like in Madama Butterfly, that Chris is married to his American sweetheart back at home, while John now works for a U.S. aid organization which connects Vietnamese street children (Bui Doi) with their American fathers. He tells Chris that Kim is alive and that he has a son. He insists that Chris tell his wife Ellen. In a flashback, we witness the fall of Saigon and learn how Chris and Kim became separated when the last U.S. helicopter evacuated from the city. Return to 1978, Chris and Ellen travel to Bangkok to be reunited with the son he has not known about until now. The final tragedy parallels the one in Puccini’s opera.
The musical is gloriously sung by the large cast despite the fact that the sound design by Mick Potter makes the orchestra sound tinny. Directed by Connor, the actors are overly emotional throughout making everything bigger than life, though in the barn of a theater with one of the largest stages on Broadway, there may simply have been no choice. As the innocent, trusting Kim, 20-year-old Filipino-American actress Eva Noblezada and the inexperienced, naïve Chris, played by British actor Alistair Brammer, this attractive couple emote well but are rather bland and colorless until the final sequence when the stakes are highest. More realistic are Bermudian-American actor Nicholas Christopher who makes the worldly John a much more three-dimensional character. Like him, Filipino actress Rachelle Ann Go from the London production gives Gigi, one of the stars of The Engineer’s Dreamland nightclub, a very hard edge. All of the female members of the ensemble demonstrate a great deal of spunk and spirit.
In the role that won British stage star Jonathan Pryce both the Olivier and Tony Awards, Jon Jon Briones is a much more sleazy Engineer, less suave and elegant, making him much more sinister and believable. Asian-American actor Devin Ilaw is stalwart, irate and irascible as Thuy who believes Kim to be a traitor by having a child by an American. In the only other defined role, Katie Rose Clarke as Chris’ American wife has little to do until the second act but she makes her presence felt in a role that ultimately becomes the other woman.
The scenic design with original concept by the late Adrian Vaux, production design by Totie Driver & Matt Kinley, and projections by Luke Halls is as eye-filling as a movie would be. The new helicopter scene during the evacuation of Saigon uses both scenery and video in a breathtaking stage effect. Connor makes excellent use of the cinematic and realistically three-dimensional sets in moving his crowds around to completely populate the stage picture. Bruno Poet’s lighting varies from shadowy evening scenes, to romantic moonlit ones, to searingly lit daytime scenes. Avian’s musical staging and choreography is dynamic and sets the pulse racing with the pageantry involved in such numbers as the gritty “The Heat’s On In Saigon” in the Dreamland night club, the frightening “Kim’s Nightmare (Fall of Saigon 1975)” and the garish fantasy of The Engineer’s imagined new life in the U.S., “The American Dream.” Andreane Neofitou’s costumes are lavish and help the cast fill up the massive settings. Musical director James Moore always keeps the lush score with its repeated themes melodic as well as romantic.
The new Miss Saigon is as hypnotic in its storytelling as it is overwrought in depicting its small tale of five people caught up in events beyond their control. As one might expect from one of the blockbuster British musicals, everything about it is huge. Luckily time has made its underlying theme of the fate of refugees caught up in war both relevant and immense too.
Miss Saigon (though January 14, 2018)
Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.saigonbroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission