The story originating from Puccini’s much-beloved opera Madame Butterfly is well enough known that most audience members arrive – as they might for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – anticipating the tragic ending to its ill-fated love story. Decade-long runs both in London and New York in the 1990s as well as continual, packed-house tours worldwide these past twenty years also mean that many will have seen an earlier version of Miss Saigon, the multi-award-winning hit of Claude-Michel Schonberg (music) and Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boubill (lyrics).
As the years have passed since its premiere, an array of voices from critics, scholars, and musical-theatre lovers have mounted against a musical in which Asian women are portrayed as prostitutes sexually assaulted on stage by American GI’s, where the heroine of color commits suicide so her son of mixed race can be raised by his white father and lily-white wife, and where negative stereotypes of Asians are wrapped up in one viperous character audience members try their best not to like due to his cunning and cheeky side conversations with them. And yet as witnessed by the sold-out, delayed opening at San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts (the previous night cancelled due to the scenery stuck on the highway mid-route) and by the sustained applause and standing ovation at the evening’s end, Miss Saigon still has adoring audiences who either do not see, ignore as irrelevant, or see as ‘historical reality’ the disturbing aspects of this Vietnam War era story.
A white soldier (Chris) falls unexpectedly heads over heels in love with a first-night call girl (Kim) just arrived from a war-ravaged, Vietnamese village. Their mutual, genuine attraction is surrounded by a collapsing Saigon in the closing days of the Vietnam War, 1975. Their few days of love-making retreat are peppered uninvitingly by her pimp (aka The Engineer) who wants to use their love as his ticket to America, by Chris’s friend (John) who sees nothing but upcoming disaster in this hot romance of the moment, and by Kim’s Communist betrothed (Thuy) who shows up wanting to whisk her away from the Yankee scum. Missed connections between the two lovers in the final hours of America’s panic-stricken retreat from Saigon mean the soldier heads home, leaving a bride-in-name — if not on legal paper — with a son soon to be born.
Three years pass while Kim faithfully awaits Chris’ return, barely surviving the new regime’s cruelty or her terrifying escape with her son, once again to find herself on sex-trade streets, this time in Bangkok with a baby. Plagued with nightly dreams of the woman he left behind, the ex-solider after a year remarries and tries to move on with his life in the U.S. But his friend’s discovery of the whereabouts of the survived girl and the existence of a son send the man and his now-wife to an ill-starred rendezvous and the tragic ending all audience expect but are still often tear-filled to witness.
We meet Kim standing frozen in fright as around her on this her first evening as a woman of the night are her half-naked sisters-of-the-trade being assaulted – spread eagle by humping, drunken GIs. With a voice not of a diva but of a young, still-developing girl not ready yet for the forced womanhood she faces, Emily Bautista as Kim sings in soft tones “The Movie in My Mind” as sustained notes denote her desperate hope to escape to a world far away from this Saigon hellhole. Her youthful innocence shines through both in vocals and in a face that lights up in belief of love’s promise as she joins with her just-met soldier love, Chris, in “Sun and Moon” – a duet whose temperature rises palatably as they caress and sing, eye-to-eye and inches apart.
In his opening “Why God Why?” Anthony Festa as Chris slides beautifully from note to note as his tenor-voice searches to understand how fate has surprisingly introduced this young girl Kim to him just as the world around him is disintegrating and he is about to head home to America. His Chris and Emily Bautista’s Kim magically, even erotically bond, lending the same face validity to their instantaneous attraction audiences have awarded Shakespeare’s lovers for centuries.
Three years later, Chris sings through tears in “The Confrontation” as he admits to his now-wife of a romance of his past. It is soon afterwards with his final cry of heart-stopping anguish as he holds a dying Kim in his arms that we as audience know that the memory of Kim and that first night have never really left him – no matter how much he has tried to convince himself, his friend John, or his wife Ellen.
Both Emily Bautista and Anthony Festa have many moments of vocal brilliance throughout the evening. However, there are a number of times when they (along with other soloists) fall into the trap of blasting notes in trumpeting volumes every time they sing anything in the upper ranges of the musical scale. Each has a tendency to give us the big, Broadway-stage voice with too-much-expanded vowels when more restraint and more variance of volume and tone would communicate so much more. This is especially glaring at one point when Kim sings to the toddler son in her arms “I’d Give My Live for You” with an intensity and volume that smack of a diva on center stage rather than a mother cuddling her son sitting on the ground.
Red Concepción plays The Engineer, the unsavory, self-centered owner of “Dreamland” in 1975 Saigon who lures in Yanks to relish among his scantily clad girls offering drinks, drugs, and delights of the flesh. He sings with the voice of a sleezy serpent in “The Transaction” and draws our contempt as he physically and verbally abuses novice Kim to do his will with the GIs pawing her. But his Engineer strives to win over our sympathy along the way, doing all he can to remind us of our mixed emotions for other musical theatre favorites such as the seedy but seductive M.C. of Cabaret or the creepy but clownish Fagin of Oliver.
The musical’s creators want us to see The Engineer as a warped, but very real Every Immigrant – that person who just wants to make it to America to find what is sure to be gold-studded streets where money grows green in trees. Mr. Concepción’s devilish and at times clownish antics tempt us to like him and sympathize with him. We laugh at and even with him as we witness “The American Dream” where he imagines himself among a stage full of feathered Vegas dancers while riding atop a Cadillac with champagne bottle in hand (just one of several, huge, elaborate, and immensely impressive productions conceived by Director Laurence Connor and executed by Choreographer Bob Avian). However, as an audience in MeToo 2019, The Engineer is particularly a difficult character to award much sympathy, particularly as staged in this production with the difficult-to-watch abuses and treatment of women in the Saigon and Bangkok scenes of brothel-based bars.
J. Daughtry plays Chris’s loyal friend, John; and in doing so he brings the night’s richest, most impressive set of vocals. His powerful voice trembles with evangelical conviction in Act Two’s opening “Bui Doi” where he preaches in song to a solemn group of former soldiers, “We will not forget who they are, all our children … conceived in hell and born in strife.” The scene is moving not only because of his preaching prowess or even for the full harmony of the men’s choral responses but particularly for the accompanying projections of the faces of forgotten, abandoned children who were in truth left in crowded camps of squalor after the Vietnam War.
Other noteworthy performances of the evening include Jinwoo Jung as Thuy and Christine Bunuan as Gigi. Thuy is a Viet Cong soldier turned Communist official who is promised in hand to his cousin Kim and then shunned away. Mr. Jung’s strong voice rings forth with a sharp, piercing intensity that sends chills down one’s back as he pronounces to the rejecting Kim, “Saigon is doomed and so are you … This is your curse!”
As a streetwise call girl, Christin Bunuan as Gigi sings “The Movie in My Mind” with a voice echoing its haunting predictions what will eventually happen to her, Kim, and the other girls of the night. Later, she shows heart and soul as she leads the same girls in a beautiful “The Wedding Ceremony” as Kim and Chris are blessed in cultural style to begin their short life together.
The most impressive moments of this traveling production tend to occur when many-to-most of the thirty-five-plus cast are on stage in elaborately conceived numbers that depict everything from busy street scenes of rushing passers-by to a propaganda-like depiction of the New Vietnam with its marching, ribbon-waving patriots to the nightmarish escape of the final GIs on a helicopter hovering dangerously overhead while hoards scream behind locked fences to be rescued. Many kudos to all the creative team whose combined efforts make this show on the road have all the appearances, sound, and eye-popping effects of a show on the Great White Way. (That said, the night I attended, there was an unexplained glitch that delayed the show twice – once for over a half-hour near the end of Act One and then again for an additional ten-or-so minutes to the intermission.)
Seeing Miss Saigon for at least my fourth or fifth time, I am now more torn than ever whether to render much-deserved praise for its soaring music, for this production’s many positive aspects, and for performances overall first-class or to join a growing chorus of voices who are declaring that the days of Miss Saigon as a viable entry on a company’s theatrical season should come to an end. I am still very much on the fence because I do love the music, because I am of an age I remember watching on TV those harrowing scenes of a collapsing Saigon, and because I always tear up as Kim sing’s her final breath and Chris screams his anguish. At the same time, I conclude that I probably never need nor want to see another Miss Saigon, given its scenes of the mistreatment of women and its underlying but maybe unintended message that white is better than non-white and that a son’s growing up in America with a white father is worth an Asian mother’s life.
Rating: 3 E
Miss Saigon continues through November 17, 2019, as part of Broadway San Jose’s offerings at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 South Almaden Boulevard, San Jose. Tickets are available online at http://broadwaysanjose.com.
Photo Credits: Matthew Murphy