Thirty years as a smash hit—and still problematic
I’m always a little embarrassed to admit that one iconic work or another has remained unknown to me—but usually glad that when I get the chance to experience it firsthand. Miss Saigon, the hit musical that opened in London thirty years ago and broke records there and in New York, opened at the Overture Center Tuesday night.
Before I even entered the building, I was offered a two-sided sheet of a note written by Timothy Yu “What’s Wrong with Miss Saigon,” stating that the note was requested by Overture Center, but then refused for publication. This is not the first time the show has generated controversy of course, being viewed by some as a distorted and incomplete picture of Vietnam and its people.
Even if a music/theater critic wished to put all that aside, there are other problems with Miss Saigon. It was created by the team of Shonberg and Boublil, the same men who gave us Les Miserables. The story is essentially a re-telling of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, and while no one would expect “Saigon” to be another “Butterfly,” the bigger problem is that it also is no “Les Miz.”
Act One is too long, too dark (in a literal sense; the emotional darkness of course comes to a climax at the end) and too loud. Yes, I fall back on my excuse, legitimate or otherwise that the vast amount of my musical experience is in the concert hall and opera house; I never have and at this semi-advanced age never will, warm to hot mics, over amplified. If nothing else, the volume allows me to excuse myself from accurately assessing the voices of the principals.
To be fair, there seemed to be many in the audience (I couldn’t see the upper levels of Overture Hall, but the venue seemed to be close to filled) were already fans of the work and ready to thoroughly enjoy this 2014 production of Cameron Mackintosh. Indeed, based on the response within and after the acts, they enjoyed it very much.
The first highlight for yours truly was in the duet “Sun and Moon,” when the GI Chris is unexpectedly falling in love with Kim, the 17-year old virgin who has been pressed into service at Dreamland, by the cynical overseer known as the Engineer (the two are pictured above in that sequence, courtesy of Matthew Murphy). At last there was room to breathe, and some lovely, lyrical music warmly realized by Emily Bautista and Anthony Festa. This takes place of course just before the fall of Saigon in 1975, and unbeknownst to Chris, he fathers a son with Kim.
The shift later in the act to the now Ho Chi Minh City in 1978 was compelling in its “The Morning of the Dragon.” A riveting juxtaposition of angry energy vis-à-vis a rigid oppression was created in the choreography and the music.
Act Two was almost a whole new ballgame, with many more opportunities for expression, range of dynamics and frankly better music. In fact, the most moving part of the evening opens the act: Chris’s GI buddy, John, returned to the states and became active in Bui Doi, a group helping the half-Vietnamese children fathered by American GIs. While a male chorus, and later John (J. Daughty) sing a moving segment, we (and presumably the Atlanta audience at the event they are portraying) watch a video of these children, gathered in schools/camps/orphanages. The scene shifts to Bangkok, where Kim and her 3-year old son, Tam, have moved with the Engineer, doing similar work in peace time that he orchestrated during the war (although he’s no longer running the show).
The events play out as in Puccini’s opera, more or less: Chris and his American wife, Ellen, come to Bangkok. There is a terrific scene between Kim and Ellen, where the latter is horrified that Kim would give up her son to Chris so that he could have a better life in America. In the end, as Chris meets Tam for the first time, Kim slips away and kills herself.
So what to make of it all? For myself, seeing Miss Saigon once is enough—but I’m glad I saw it. Clearly the show has legions of fans that will come again and again, and if you are among those (or now are curious to see it for yourself) there are remaining performances Thursday at 7:30, Friday at 8, Saturday at 2 and 8, and Sunday at 1 and 6:30. And for what it’s worth, the next time I see Madame Butterfly I’m sure it won’t look the same.