Vietnam, via Broadway

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

And that it overcomes the score's lyrics, which betray a limiting compulsion to rhyme. Boublil and co-lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. are occasionally nimble, especially in the rousing "What a Waste" ("Hey Joe, try taking a little excursion / You'll all feel good from a little perversion / Massage requiring total immersion / Some strange positions they say are Persian") and in the perverse riffs to "The American Dream" ("Girls can buy tits by the pair / The American Dream / Bald people think they'll grow hair / The American Dream"). But the majority of the rhymes are predictable and shallow. And if the lyrics aren't awkward -- the title "The Movie in My Mind" is indication enough -- they're heavy-handed -- "I'd Give My Life for You."

But courtesy of Schsnberg's inspired music, this doesn't really matter. Finely crafted with shimmering feelings and unstoppable momentum, the melodies swirl, shape, construct: the lush eloquence of the sax-laden ballad, "The Last Night of the World"; the exotic delicacy of a soothing flute in a Vietnamese wedding song, "The Ceremony"; the enticing carnival sleaze of nearly all the Engineer's tunes. When Kim sings about how she still believes that Chris will come for her, the notes swell and rise up just as she is doing, and when she warns "You Will Not Touch Him," the notes are longer, become fuller, deeper, echoing her resolve to protect her son. The music, so artful it seems effortless, simply sweeps you away.

The principal performers don't fully inhabit the material but their earnestness goes a long way. An impassioned singer and determined actress, Deedee Lynn Magno compellingly brings out Kim's noble side and delicate strength. Kim is a character who goes from girlish innocence to steely resolve to calamitous grace. What's missing in Magno's interpretation is the luminous quality inherent in a fated, beautiful heroine. Chris, her misguided hero, is written as little more than a mass of contradictory, stereotypic impulses. That may be why Matt Bogart enters the stage seething with intensity. Though this abrupt, physical attempt at moral confusion eventually gains some weight, Bogart as Chris is hard-pressed to convey why Kim would love him unto death. Bogart sings robustly, and is a serviceable serviceman, but he lacks that essential, ambiguous, GI sex-appeal.

The appeal of the Engineer is both base and elevated. He's a conniver shrewd enough to know that men will be men, regardless of race or regime; yet for all his street smarts, he still buys into the mythic distortions of Yankeeland, perpetually yearning for something that can only disappoint. As the Engineer, Thom Sesma stops the show when singing about this in "The American Dream," tasting his desires and asserting his wanderlust so much that we can't help but smile knowingly. But the Engineer should be as insinuating as Kim is ingenuous; Sesma neglects this facet, and loses the resulting pity we should feel for him. Sesma is a little too cool for the Engineer; the character should be a slithering snake, but Sesma is more of a hip rat.

But then again, Saigon itself isn't very threatening either. Rather than try for incisive commentary, the show opts for grand entertainment. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's escapist, not when the closing tableau is spilled Vietnamese blood that American hands are at least partly responsible for. The ultimate legacy of Saigon so outweighs the sum of its frequently superficial words, hokey drama and competent but not brilliant actors that the evening is riveting, wrenching and, perhaps, in an agonizingly ironic way, cathartic.

Miss Saigon plays through September 2 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 629-3700.

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