'Miss Saigon': Theater Review

Matthew Murphy
Emily Bautista and Anthony Festa in 'Miss Saigon'
Still a crowd-pleaser.

Producer Cameron Mackintosh's latest national tour of the hit 1991 Broadway musical touches down in Los Angeles, bringing overwrought emotion and helicopters.

Throughout its history, the U.S., through military and trade policies, has often made collateral damage of women and children. It was true during the Vietnam War, as well as the first Iraq War of 1991, the year Miss Saigon stormed Broadway. It’s also true today with babies in cages on our borders as producer Cameron Mackintosh's national tour of the 2017 Broadway revival arrives in Los Angeles sporting spectacle, passion and dated notions of American selflessness.

Composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricist Alain Boublil, in their follow-up to the smash hit Les Miserables, turned to another towering figure of 19th century European culture, Giacomo Puccini, cleverly lifting Madama Butterfly and placing it at the end of the Vietnam War. A South Vietnamese girl, Kim (Emily Bautista), falls in love with American G.I. Chris (Anthony Festa), just as Saigon is about to fall. Three years later, she’s a single mother who supports her little boy as a dancer in a Bangkok strip joint. Driven by the hope that Chris will one day rescue her and whisk her off to America, she has no idea that he is married to Ellen (Stacie Bono), but remains haunted by his conscience and his past.

As Kim, Bautista takes on a role that sparked Lea Salonga’s career back in 1991 when she took home a Tony Award, one of 11 nominations for the show. The 2017 revival earned a nomination for newcomer Eva Noblezada (Hadestown), for whom Bautista understudied. She brings to Kim a grace forged in fire and a delicate soprano, heard to great effect in her first act closer, “I’d Give My Life for You.” 

As Chris, Festa seems tortured by his stay in Vietnam and later by his home life with Ellen, played by Bono, who marks one of the score’s highlights with her torch song, “Maybe.” Festa tests the audience with a one-note performance defined by frustration and earnest yearning, particularly in his ill-advised decision to find Kim and his son, Tam, with wife in tow. The U.S., in the character of Chris, is drawn as well-meaning, even if it did abandon a pregnant mother in poverty. 

While Kim dominates the spotlight, the show’s other plum role is the Engineer, the host/pimp who employs her and other hard-luck women. Jonathan Pryce won a Tony for originating the role, and Red Concepcion plays the lovable scoundrel here with a sly cynicism and ribald sense of humor. He steals the second act with the penultimate number, “The American Dream,” in which he sings, “What's that I smell in the air? / Sweet as a suite in Bel-Air / Girls can buy tits by the pair / Bald people think they'll grow hair / Call girls are lining Times Square / Bums there have money to spare.”

A key member of Mackintosh’s team, director Laurence Connor cut his teeth on the recent Les Miserables revival. The frenetic energy with which he captured the French Revolution is a snug fit for war-torn Saigon, but both shows suffer from hyperbolic deliveries in the style of the firmly-raised-fist school of acting. Connor seems most at ease when his stage is filled with the ensemble in crisis, as with the U.S. embassy airlift scene, which still wows with a life-sized helicopter swooping in to the rescue. Even so, intimate scenes between Kim and Chris inevitably devolve into schmaltz.

Similarly to Les MiserablesMiss Saigon is engaging as spectacle but, with the exception of “The American Dream,” the melodies and lyrics seldom register. Schonberg’s choruses, especially the platoon of Vietcong singing in honor of Ho Chi Minh to Bob Avian’s dynamic lockstep choreography, outshine his duets and solos, which inevitably build to hyperbolic emotionalism. In the words of Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, each song “goes to 11,” leaving little room to build. 

“Christ, I’m an American. How can I fail to do good?” asks Chris. Well, we seemed to fail in Vietnam, and did little good in the Iraq War that followed. The question rings of altruism when what Miss Saigon could use is a lot more bite. Vietnam, like most wars, is a legacy of lives ruined and lives lost for a questionable cause. Kim’s story illustrates the suffering of her people; Chris’ story inadvertently portrays the fatuity of his.  

Venue: Pantages Theatre, Hollywood
Cast: Red Concepcion, Emily Bautista, Anthony Festa, Stacie Bono, J. Daughtry, Jinwoo Jung, Eymard Cabling, Myra Molloy, Christine Bunuan, Anna-Lee Wright, Joelle Margallo, TIffany Toh, Makoka Koguchi, Jackie Nguyen, Kai An Chee, Julie Eicher, Emily Stillings, Devin Archer, Alexander Aguilar, Matthew Dailey, Noah Gouldsmith, David Kaverman, McKinley Knuckle, Adam Roberts, Michael Russell, Nicholas Walters, erick Badique, Adam Kaokept, Emilio Ramos, Kevin Murakami, Julius Sermonia, Tyler Dunn, Haven Je, Fin Moulding, Adalynn Ng, Garrick Macatangay, Matthew Overberg
Director: Laurence Connor
Music: Claude-Michel Schonberg
Lyrics: Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil, additional lyrics by Michael Mahler
Book: Alain Boublil
Set designer: Totie Driver and Matt Kinley
Costume designer: Andreane Neofitou
Lighting designer: Bruno Poet
Sound designer: Mick Potter
Projection designer: Luke Halls
Orchestrations: William David Brohn
Music director: Will Curry
Choreographer: Bob Avian
Executive producer: Cameron Mackintosh