In 1991, when Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil's Miss Saigon first wowed Broadway-goers with its epic tale of war-torn Vietnam, the musical won multiple awards. And after almost 20 years, it was a wonderful surprise to discover that Theatre Under the Stars' revival still feels relevant. The stunning cast, working together under the powerful direction of Bruce Lumpkin, makes this production explode across the stage with moving urgency.
The story starts in Dreamland, the ironically named dive where we meet the major players in the tragedy. The Engineer (Joseph Anthony Foronda) is the bossman. He runs the joint and "engineers" deals between the Dreamland ladies and the American soldiers who frequent the bar. Kim (Melinda Chua) is the innocent, orphaned country girl lured to Saigon to dance and sell herself — she's also on the run from an arranged marriage to Thuy (Steven Eng). On this night a new Miss Saigon will be crowned, and the bar is elbow-to-elbow with T-shirted soldiers and gyrating, sparkling girls. John (Philip Michael Baskerville) wants to get his buddy Chris (Eric Kunze) some female companionship to cheer him up for the night. But the decent guy doesn't really go in for that sort of thing. Still, as the song goes, "The Heat Is on in Saigon."
Everyone knows the Americans are about to pull out — all the ladies, along with The Engineer, would sell their souls for papers that would get them out of the city and across the ocean to America before Saigon falls to the North. "The Movie in My Mind," about their fantasies of life in America, is haunting: "Every time I take one in my arms, it starts: The movie in my mind, the dream they leave behind." Even Chris is filled with hand-wringing anxiety about what's going on in the war, especially after he spies the lovely Kim across the crowded bar.
Through February 21. The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. Tickets start at $24.
The next scenes fast-forward over Chris and Kim's brief but very passionate love affair. With songs like "Sun and Moon" and "The Ceremony," the musical detours out of the hair-raising world of war and into the more familiar musical territory of doomed love. Chris and Kim enact a marriage ceremony just before "The Last Night of the World," after which the Americans will lift out of the country, leaving the Vietnamese who helped them struggle to survive a regime change that will turn Saigon into Ho Chi Minh City.
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"The Morning of the Dragon" brings the narrative forward three years and finds The Engineer still working the system, only now the system is forced-communist, nothing this do-anything-to-get-ahead guy wants. He slithers out of the rice fields by agreeing to help Thuy, who's now in charge of this well-organized machine of people, find Kim.
We soon learn that Kim is still dreaming of her American "husband" Chris, and Chris is back in the States, haunted in his sleep by images of Kim even though he's now married to Ellen (Jessica Rush). Of course, all these folks must somehow collide, which they do over the course of the story, made even sadder by Kim's devotion to her son, who is one of the Bui Doi, a scorned, mixed-race child left behind by an American father. The English translation is "The dust of life."
This is a big show with lots of flash — though the famous scene in which a helicopter actually lands on the stage is tamed down quite a bit in this production — so all the heartache and political poignancy could easily get lost in the Broadway glitz. But the cast keeps the story and the music grounded in a rich emotional landscape. They all have enormous knockout voices. When Kunze's Chris sings about his conflicted love or his sleepless nights, the effect is heart-wrenching. Chua's Kim is filled with melancholy and an angelic sweetness that makes what happens to her really matter, even in an arena as big as the Hobby Center. Baskerville's John, who sings about the Bui Doi with larger-than-life photos of real children flashing behind him, manages to find a dead-on balance between the weight of the politics and emotions inherent in the song; and Foronda's Engineer makes the terrible cost of war gut-punchingly real. His lowlife dreams of owning the finest brothel in America capture in graphic detail what we've all learned over the past couple of years — that capitalism, like any system, has a sinister underbelly.
This tale about a doomed woman and her ravaged country, as told by this fine cast,is as sorrowful and meaningful as musical theater can be.