New York City Theater
Give in. If you don’t, “Miss Saigon” will descend on you, grab your throat and force you to become an acolyte. That’s the effect the latest revival of the irresistible pseudo-operatic spectacle has, as it had in its initial 10-year Broadway run in 1991.
The musical, inspired by Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” but updated to the Vietnam War, was written by the “Les Misérables” team of composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and co-lyricist Alain Boublil (with Richard Maltby, Jr.). The orchestra gets a workout in this rich score (“The Movie in My Mind,” “Why God Why ?” “Sun and Moon,” “I’d Give My Life for You” and the gorgeous “The Last Night of the World”). As played by an 18-piece orchestra under conductor James Moore, the music seems to waft from every corner of the theater. Although the lyrics run to “You’ll be my wife / we’ll build a new life,” the score is undeniably strong.
The characters, however, are shallow and without back stories. Our putative hero, Chris, promises Kim, the bargirl he just met and bedded that he will marry her and take her to the States. Their meeting, in a brothel run by the conniving Engineer who seeks an American visa, is love at first sight, as he tells his friend John. Complicating the romance is the appearance of Thuy, Kim’s intended since childhood. But Chris’ efforts to get Kim out of Saigon via the last helicopter (yes, there’s a helicopter) are futile.
Back in the States, Chris marries Ellen, a blonde all-American. Informed that he has a child in Vietnam, he returns to the now-peaceful land. Kim believes he will take her and their son to America but, if you know “Butterfly,” you’ll anticipate the ending.
Luckily, the show is not all thwarted romance: a widening view of politics and a somewhat trenchant critique of America’s failures backdrop the love affair. In the first act, North Vietnamese celebrate their victory in a pulsating military pageant (“The Morning of the Dragon”).
At the beginning of the second act, John, the head of an organization dedicated to repatriating “Bui Doi,” children born to American soldiers and Vietnamese women (”conceived in hell / and born in strife”), is the friend who tells Chris about the destitute Kim. The sequence deepens the melodrama, as does “The American Dream,” in which the Engineer sneers at the materialism of a country he both criticizes and covets.
Excitingly directed by Laurence Connor, with musical staging and choreography by Bob Avian (“A Chorus Line”), the cast is able. More than that is Devin Ilaw as the thwarted Thuy, giving a performance of clarity and focus.
The sensational design by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley features a giant head of Miss Liberty, from whose mouth spews the spoils of materialistic America, including a full-sized Cadillac. With garish lighting by Bruno Poet, projections by Luke Halls, stunning costumes by Andreane Neofitou and (very loud) sound designed by Mick Potter, this “Miss Saigon” doesn’t stint on dazzle. It’s schlock, yes, yet passionate schlock.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 3, 2017