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Vietnam, via Broadway

Despite its obvious flaws, Miss Saigon remains a must-see

On the eve of the Houston debut of Miss Saigon, producer Cameron Mackintosh was confident about his contribution to contemporary musical theater. "Not compromising the standards once the show leaves New York," he concluded via telephone from his London offices. "I insist on making the show the same wherever it goes."

This commitment to integrity has clearly paid off. Among his 300 productions all over the world, Les Miserables alone has come to Houston on four occasions, and each run has been SRO. Last summer he brought in Phantom of the Opera, which also sold out. A Mackintosh undertaking is almost always must-see; frequently it's the ticket of the season.

So is Saigon to die for? Yes, even with the best seats $60 a pop. Despite its faults -- and there are many, in both the show and this particular production -- Saigon is a profoundly emotional, stirringly visual invocation of a painful, poignant era: the Vietnam War. A Saigon that could play Houston has been three years in the making (it had to be redesigned to fit smaller stages). With Communist hordes paying military obeisance to an 18-foot-high golden statue of Ho Chi Minh, with a vintage white convertible Caddy floating down from the capitalist heavens of an American wannabe's reverie and with an American GI failing to get his Vietnamese fiancee onboard an 8,000 pound Marine helicopter that seemingly hovers on-stage during the fall of Saigon, it's well worth the wait. Saigon is nothing less than sublime theatrics. I saw the New York production, and from a technical standpoint Mackintosh is as good as his word about the tour: there's nothing cut-price here.

Written by Les Miserables creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schsnberg, Saigon borrows from Madame Butterfly to tell a rather simplistic, frequently bathetic, but still overwhelming story. It's love at first sight for Chris, an American Everyman Marine, and Kim, an innocent Vietnamese country girl reduced by the ravages of the "police action" to work as a bargirl in Saigon. Chris "buys" her for a time from a Eurasian hustler, known as the Engineer, who's raising cash to finance a journey from Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam. Chris and Kim are separated when the last chopper flees the fall of Saigon before she can get on it. Three years pass. Upon discovering that Kim has survived and is raising their son, Chris returns -- with his new stateside wife. Kim, whose love for Chris has kept her alive, is crushed. Her courage taking another turn, she sacrifices herself for her little boy.

The melodrama -- there is also a subplot involving Kim's arranged fiance, who wants to ethnically cleanse her impure child -- is so ripe it might seem as if it festers. In fact, the Act Two opener -- a cloying, cliched anthem pleading for homeless Amerasian children -- is so manipulative that it's accompanied by a feverish gospel choir and telethon-ish film clips. About the only insight Saigon comes up with is that the North Vietnamese were bad and that the American do-gooders didn't do all that good. Any references to the horrors of war are kept at a safe, off-stage distance.

No matter. Though there's reason enough to be outraged by how reductive and error-filled Saigon's version of this still contentious chapter in history is (check out the anachronistic hairdos), the show nevertheless singes the spirit and ignites the soul. Mining the strengths of many of the most important musicals of the last half-century (from expanding South Pacific's East-meets-West plot to transforming Cabaret's Emcee into the Engineer to turning Evita's parading Peronists into ritualistic Vietcong), Saigon grippingly conveys how doomed geopolitics can resonate from an individual love story. The metaphors burst from the romance, with Kim's pure devotion to one type of American dream in stirring contrast to the Engineer's corrupt worship of another. Chris, torn between loyalties, may be seen as the symbolic ambivalence of conscience. Saigon brings the war home in all the ways we remember -- and might want to forget.

It says a great deal about Saigon that the drama isn't upstaged by the technology. Except once: the celebrated helicopter scene. It occurs out of narrative order as a flashback, drawing attention to itself in a touristy way. But most of the time director Nicholas Hytner stays true to the vast powers of suggestion. So Act One climaxes with an outstretched hand helping refugees on a trek that's as uphill as the black, empty stage from which they're retreating. When the U.S. Embassy is stormed, Vietnamese scale chainlink fences in slow-motion, the action reduced to its most primal essence. And what better way to show the American dream than a chorus line of leisure-suited Elvises and scantily clad Marilyns? Hytner's direction mirrors the best of Saigon in that it's fluid, fundamental and crystalline. It's also expressly cinematic, thanks to lighting designer David Hersey, who accents the settings with tinges of Communist red, hovel yellow and ghostly white. After a midnight love scene, early morning heat rises over a peasant shack; there's smoky turbulence at the Embassy; a go-go strip explodes in cheap neon. The glory of Saigon is that it soars in its tragic intimacy.

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