Broadway is looking a lot more like Hollywood these days. In the eternal hunt for blockbusters, the Great White Way has gone for bigger sets, better special effects and big names like Nicole Kidman (even better when they're naked, of course). Rather than risk funding an unknown quantity, producers have put their money behind remakes of mediocre yet recognizable movies like Flashdance and Footloose. When Theater Under the Stars became the first American company to secure the rights to produce Miss Saigon away from New York, rather than re-create the original's production values, Houston-bred director Bruce Lumpkin had to work his way around them.
The regional premiere at the Arena Theatre marks the first time the hit musical has ever been produced in the round. With an audience seated on all sides of the stage, any large sets would inevitably obstruct someone's view. The justification for the format is suspiciously Spielbergian: Theater in the round "opens you up, and what happens is that it becomes more cinematic it's almost like watching a close-up in a movie," Lumpkin says. But it also allows the audience to be brought into the action. "We got platforms built out in the house, and it's all built on drums and wicker stages. And the spotlight towers are thatched-roof huts, so the whole atmosphere is Saigon."
Yeah, but how does he manage the mechanical helicopter that wowed audiences in the long-running Broadway version? "We found out a way, which I'm not going to tell you," Lumpkin says coyly. "It's going to have the illusion of taking off. Obviously, it's not."
Production aside, when it comes to Saigon's lasting appeal, it's the story, stupid. Set during the Vietnam War, the plot involves Kim, a young Vietnamese woman who falls in love with Chris, a U.S. marine. Separated during the fall of Saigon, Chris returns three years later with his American wife to find that Kim not only is alive but has given birth to his son. Since the musical is based on Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly, you can practically guarantee a tragic outcome. "We went to Vietnam with the idea of saving these people, but in reality, we did quite a bit of damage ourselves," Lumpkin says.
Miss Saigonwas inspired by real-life events that shaped the memories of anyone who lived during that time. When the grandfather of a Vietnamese girl in the cast walked into the costume room, he immediately pointed to some outfits. "Those are North Vietnamese," the man said. "I saw flash across his face what it was like to be there at that time," Lumpkin recalls. "There's a lot of history that's going to emotionally affect people in different ways, but it's quite a good story. It ran for ten years for a reason. It wasn't just because of the glitz and helicopters. It's because it's a great story with great music." Well, that's two advantages Lumpkin has over the folks who were saddled with remaking Big for the stage.