Miss Saigon

‘MISS SAIGON’: Eva Noblezada & Devin Ilaw. Photo: Matthew Murphy

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MISS SAIGON
Adapted from the original French text by Alain Boublil
Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. & Alain Boublil
Directed by Laurence Conner
Musical Staging by Bob Avian
Broadway Theatre
1681 Broadway at 53rd Street
212-238-6200, wwwSaigonBroadway.com

 

 

By David NouNou

In the 1960s, America had the British rock invasion: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, etc. In the 1980s and 1990s we had the Cameron Mackintosh invasion: Cats, Starlight Express, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon. Damn, that’s impressive, and Broadway deservedly welcomed him with open arms. He singlehandedly turned a dying Broadway into a booming, bustling Broadway with the aid of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Schönberg and Boublil.

That being said, I must now specifically concentrate on Miss Saigon. In 1991 it came to Broadway with the largest advance in history to date, the tale that a helicopter lands on stage (Americans love special effects) and a lot of controversy regarding casting. I salute Mr. Mackintosh in his stand to bring Jonathan Pryce and Lea Salonga in their roles that they originated in London, for which they ultimately won Tony Awards for best actor and actress, because without them the show would not have been as powerful and impactful.

Fast forward to 2017: Seeing Miss Saigon again might seem awesome at first thought but sadly for me (and I’m sure for most Americans who see it), it’s a shameful reminder of our past history and the atrocities that took place during the Vietnam War. Unlike the epic grandeur of Les Misérables with its glorious and memorable score and beautifully etched-out characters, Miss Saigon is epic visually but very thin on story line. It is basically Madame Butterfly set during the Vietnam War.

Chris (Alistair Brammer), an American G.I. stationed in Vietnam, falls in love with the 17-year- old Vietnamese bar girl, Kim (Eva Noblezada) who is under the thumbs and controlled by the Engineer (Jon Jon Briones), a man who has big dreams of coming to the USA and using his entrepreneurial skills to make it big in America. You know the rest.

The score by Boublil and Schönberg never lives up to the magnificence of Les Misérables. With the exception of “The Last Night of the World” a sweet ballad sung by Kim and Chris, the haunting “I’d Give My Life For You,” sung by Kim, and the Engineer’s rousing delusional tribute “The American Dream,” the rest of the score is undistinguished. The sensation of the show back then was the helicopter scene; now the best thing about that is the landing in which wind machines blast air onto the orchestra to simulate a helicopter landing with lots of people clamoring to get on and the taking off is like watching the headlights and front of a Volkswagen Beetle ascending.

For Mr. Mackintosh, casting is most essential. He brought Mr. Pryce as the Engineer, a role that is sinister, evil, calculating and a lowlife. He’d do anything and sacrifice anyone just to save his hide. Mr. Pryce played that part to perfection, and at the end you were cheering for him. As for Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer, I honestly have no idea what he is conveying. The closet character I could think of was a sleazy version of the parrot, Jose Carioca, in the 1943 Disney animated movie Saludos Amigos; totally lacking in personality, charisma and style, nothing that would suggest sinister, just plain smarmy and weasely.

Ms. Noblezada is enchanting as Kim, but Mr. Brammer lacks the passion that tortures Chris for having left Kim behind. Honorable mention must be made to Katie Rose Clark as Ellen, Chris’ wife, and Nicholas Christopher as John, Chris’ war buddy and friend. Another standout is Rachelle Ann Go as the prostitute Gigi, with her lush, haunting voice.

From a visual standpoint, this version of Miss Saigon is grimy and gritty.  Its direction by Laurence Connor is listless and aimless, no real vision or structure to it. It is so dimly lit that it is hard to distinguish if there ever was any daylight in Saigon. I saw this production in London in 2015 at the Prince Edward Theatre and there were talks back then that Miss Saigon would be transferring to Broadway. I knew that to make this move, better choices had to be made in direction and casting, especially for the Engineer.  The Engineer has to be able to hold up this giant behemoth of a musical. It wasn’t Mr. Briones then in the U.K. production and time has not improved him. Smarmy and pandering to the audience is not a real interpretation for the Engineer. Certainly better, tighter and more disciplined direction is needed than what Mr. Connor has provided.

It is not impossible to sell a historical musical that once lived for the helicopter gimmick; however, it is harder to sell when you have a musical with unfamiliar names, especially this season when there are stars in many of the shows currently playing. You can still sell a historical musical with no names if it is brilliantly conceived, directed and acted. Case in point: Come From Away—highly recommended.

 

Edited by Scott Harrah
Published March 29, 2017
Reviewed at press performance on March 28, 2017

 

Miss Saigon

‘MISS SAIGON’: Jon Jon Briones. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Miss Saigon

‘MISS SAIGON’: Katie Rose Clarke & Alistair Brammer. Photo: Matthew Murphy

‘MISS SAIGON’: Rachelle Ann Go. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Miss Saigon

‘MISS SAIGON’: Alistair Brammer & Eva Noblezada. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Miss Saigon

‘MISS SAIGON’: Jon Jon Briones & cast. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Miss Saigon

‘MISS SAIGON’: Eva Noblezada. Photo: Matthew Murphy

‘MISS SAIGON’: Devin Ilaw. Photo: Matthew Murphy

‘MISS SAIGON’: Jon Jon Briones. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Miss Saigon

‘MISS SAIGON’: Eva Noblezada. Photo: Matthew Murphy

‘MISS SAIGON’: Jon Jon Briones. Photo: Matthew Murphy

‘MISS SAIGON’: Nicholas Christopher. Photo: Matthew Murphy

‘MISS SAIGON’: Alistair Brammer. Photo: Joan Marcus

‘MISS SAIGON’: Alistair Brammer & Eva Noblezada. Photo: Matthew Murphy

‘MISS SAIGON’: Eva Noblezada & Samuel Li Weintraub. Photo: Matthew Murphy

‘MISS SAIGON’: Jon Jon Briones & cast. Photo: Matthew Murphy

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