Controversy and cries of insensitivity have plagued Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Richard Maltby, Jr.'s Miss Saigon since its London world premiere in 1989. The Broadway production opened in 1991 and ran ten years. It's a juggernaut, constantly on tour, raking in the big bucks. The show is huge, operatic in form, symphonic in scope, adult in theme (don't take the kids). It's been around so long, it's part of our musical theater furniture, much like the team's first gargantuan hit, Les Miserables (1985).
And there are plenty of echoes from that earlier show – furious stagecraft, compelling drama, sweeping music – to make these musicals into bookends. The team, which seemed destined for true theater greatness, never repeated their successes. Their subsequent ventures (Martin Guerre, The Pirate Queen) never caught fire. The Pirate Queen self-combusted. That show was an epic bomb. Trust me, I saw it. I was one of the 145 people who did. I'll never forget it, damn them.
But Miss Saigon has pedigree. Adapted from Puccini's immortal opera Madama Butterfly, Schönberg and Boublil set the tale of innocent Butterfly (a.k.a. Kim) and her cad lover Pinkerton (a.k.a. Chris) during the last days of the Vietnam War. This modern update gives the 19th-century melodrama a soupcon of relevance. They also made Chris, the marine who falls for Kim, into a more sensitive leading man. He's in love with her. He wants to take her home to America. In the opera, Pinkerton is all carnal. He has no desire other than to bed Cio-Cio-san, marrying her in order to do so, then cruelly abandoning her.
In the musical, Kim is a prostitute, a poor country girl who's lost her parents in the war. She needs money and falls in with the oily Engineer, an amoral pimp writ large, who, like the Thénardiers from Les Mis, thrives on graft, corruption, and never, ever, underestimating the vile nature of humanity. Chris and Kim are separated during the fall of Saigon, and, though haunted by her memory, Chris marries anew in America, never revealing his past to his wife.
Escaping Vietnam, Kim returns to her former life with the Engineer in Bangkok. She now has Chris's son. There's a subplot about her peasant finance, who's a bigwig in the Viet Cong, who wants her to honor the arranged marriage her parents brokered when they were children. The tension is nicely wound at the Act I curtain.
There are so many big moments in this show, you almost understand why the famous coup de theatre “helicopter scene” gets shoehorned into Act II, as Kim's nightmare. This should be the closer to Act I. What's more spectacular than blinding lights, the emotional music, the deafening sound of whomping blades, all the cast pressed against a security fence, and Kim and Chris crying out to find each other? It's still damned effective, one of any musical's greatest thrills.
You can understand the backlash the show has engendered. The only Vietnamese women we see are prostitutes; the Vietnamese men are oppressors or pimps; the Americans are clueless or randy. Like Puccini's Cio-Cio-san, Kim, though, is a saintly mother. She has dignity in this. Without a proper home, her child is doomed, one of the thousands of “bui doi,” those fatherless children left behind by the servicemen. In the musical's most effective sequence, their plight is sung as an anguished gospel-infused number at the beginning of Act II. Using documentary footage from orphanages in Hanoi, their sweet faces stare at us, haunt us. It's unbearably sad. Theater's artifice retreats, and reality emerges full-on to slap us awake. It's almost too weighty a moment for even a serious musical play. But it's Miss Saigon's defining moment. It's very woke.
This new touring production is the 2014 London revival. It's immensely cinematic, effortlessly shifting scenes under Bruno Poet's pin-spot lighting and Totie Driver and Matt Kinley's gliding set pieces. Again, though, the sound design for the singers is atrocious for the behemoth space of the Hobby. Every voice is garbled, and those deliciously rhymed English lyrics from Maltby go unheard. This is distracting and so unnecessary. I'm aware that touring shows are basically pre-set before they travel, but somebody should warn the designers about the Hobby's insatiable maw that consumes all sound. (Things weren't helped by the fact that the show started 50 minutes late due to apparent technical difficulties with the helicopter and traveling curtains. Again, as recently happened at the Alley Theatre at opening night of Crimes of the Heart, there was no announcement from stage advising audience members what was going on or that they could get up and move around.)
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As beautiful an artist as is Emily Bautista, who plays Kim, I couldn't understand her at all. Hunky Anthony Festa, as Chris, fares better because his pumped reedy tenor cuts through anything. Red Conceptión has a field day as the greasy Engineer. Think of the Emcee from Cabaret, processed through any Fosse show, and overlaid with tasteless porn moves. He invites us into hell with devilish debauchery, munching on the scenery. During his showstopper, “The American Dream,” he'd bite into the Cadillac's grill if he could.
As Chris's army buddy, J. Daughtry is stolid and sure, then heartbreaking, as he sings about the forgotten orphans in “Bui Doi;” while Jinwoo Jung, as Kim's fiance Thuy, is fully committed as a communist menace. Christine Bunuan, as woeful call girl Gigi, only gets one number, but it's a beaut, “The Movie in My Mind.” She's this show's Fantine from Les Mis, and she too, breaks our heart.
Everybody sings Schönberg's pop operatic score with fervor and conviction. While it's easy to see why this musical gets scorn heaped upon it, it's also easy to see why this musical is one of the top-20 shows in history: lush, romantic, epic. Nobody's perfect.
Miss Saigon continues through May 12 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit thehobbycenter.or or broadwayatthehobbycenter.com. $48-$361.