Miss Saigon swooped into the Pantages this week in it’s third revival presented by Cameron Mackintosh. This is Composer Claude Michele Schonberg and lyricist Alain Boublil re-imagined version of the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly. The story has been deftly lifted from the 19th century and reset at the end of the Vietnam War just before the Fall of Saigon. An orphaned South Vietnamese peasant girl Kim (Emily Bautista) has been coaxed by The Engineer (Red Concepcion) to be the new girl in his brothel where she meets and falls in love with Chris (Anthony Festa) an American soldier. They fall hard and fast and commit to each other in a mock marriage ceremony. In the chaotic final moments of the evacuation of Saigon Kim and Chris are separated and his promise to take her to America is lost. Three years later she is a stripper in Thailand raising her young son on her own and dreaming that Chris will reappear and whisk her and their child into a better life. This is not to be as Chris has married Ellen (Stacie Bono) but is ever haunted by leaving Kim behind.
Well directed by Laurence Conner a Mackintosh regular, he captures the spectacle and chaotic last days of the failed American war. The choreography of Bob Avian and Geoffrey Garratt is effective especially in the military homage to Ho Chi Mihn. It’s the all out showstopper “The American Dream” however that brings down the house. Red Concepcion gets a chance to show all his formidable skills here and he is creepily delightful as the smarmy winner takes all Engineer.
Emily Bautista shines as Kim with her ever-supple voice and commitment to character. This show is something of a marathon run for Bautista and she keeps pace all the way to her final moments. Anthony Festa as Chris is less nimble emotionally than Bautista and though he is a singer par excellence there is a slight jarring edge to his voice that can be off putting. When singing together the tone is lovely but the lyrics are hard to decipher. This was a problem throughout the first act.
Perhaps because of the seating at the top of the mezzanine it was often hard to understand the lyrics. By the second act this had improved somewhat. Possibly it was a sound issue, the acoustics and or enunciation of the performers but it was detrimental to the first act.
That being said, the second act opens with a powerful J. Daughtry as John the soldier friend to Chris, who is now leading an organization to help the lost children of Saigon. The plight of these children is disturbingly poignant and makes one wonder what became of them, just as one contemplates the misery of our Southern border and it’s cages.
The thrilling stagecraft of the harrowing helicopter landing in the 1991 original production is just as real and visceral today. Lighting is top-notch and the sets and costumes are well suited to the time, place and needs of the story. The score with orchestrations by William David Brohn tends toward the melodramatic though the able pit orchestra handles it proficiently as led by conductor Will Curry.
Overall it’s an entertaining night with stellar performances from a gifted cast. Still it’s hard not to wish that Miss Saigon had more substance in this moment, when our country is bound up in division and hate. When Chris refers to America as “The place where life still has worth.” It diminishes the suffering inflicted on the Vietnamese by the very people he’s praising. In today’s climate some lyric or dialogue changes might be warranted to avoid the taste of Jingoism. And though Chris is distraught by the death of Kim one can see the future with the little dark haired boy finding a new home with his blonde parents in a country that abandoned it’s veteran’s. The intent of the show is sincere and moving and yet it ends with sad irony.
Miss Saigon at the Pantages runs through August 11th, 2019.
Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle, July 22, 2019
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Featured image: Emily Bautista as ‘Kim’ and Anthony Festa as ‘Chris’ in the North American Tour of MISS SAIGON singing “Sun and Moon” – Photo: Matthew Murphy