The Rise of Saigon

With the heart-stopping sound of helicopter blades descending from the darkness above, Claude-Michel Schönberg's Miss Saigon makes its grand operalike entrance onto the humble Arena Theatre stage. And though the popular musical, inspired by Puccini's gorgeous Madame Butterfly, seems a bit cramped inside the funky suburban venue, the Theatre Under the Stars production, the first outside New York, offers a fine sense of sadness, which lingers over this lush Vietnam War-era melodrama.

The two lovers who find themselves divided by race and war are as compelling as ever. Their tale is an old one; Miss Saigon's genesis can be traced back to Pierre Loti's 1887 novel, which was adapted into a short story by lawyer/ writer John Luther Long in 1898. Two years later David Belasco adapted Long's sorrowful tale into a play, and then Puccini turned it into one of his most compelling operas in 1904. In the early '90s, Schönberg and lyricists Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby updated the story, setting it in Saigon during the dramatic airlift of 1975, one of the most wrenching political events in recent American history.

The stage lights come up on a Saigon strip club ironically named Dreamland. The only dreams here, of course, are the ones about fleeing Vietnam before the city falls. Run by a purple-suit-wearing slickster who calls himself The Engineer (Joseph Anthony Foronda), this skanky bar is the last refuge from an ugly war. The lonely American marines who frequent the place and the young orphaned Vietnamese women who shake their pretty booties for a few dollars both reek of wartime cynicism. This is no place for true love to bloom.

The new girl, Kim (Emy Baysic), whom The Engineer dresses in white, is a true innocent, of course. She still believes in love, and when she meets a blond marine named Chris (Sean McDermott) on her first night, she hasn't yet developed the sort of hard-hearted gloss that will protect her from a future of bitter disappointment. Once alone with Chris, she tells of her war experiences -- how she ran "from the rice field and saw [her parents] in flames," how they were "bodies whose faces were gone." Sung with rage by Baysic, Kim's story melts Chris's tough heart, and the two fall into the safety of each other's arms.

They soon set up house and even perform a homemade wedding, sweetly sung by Baysic and McDermott in the tender tune "The Ceremony." But when Saigon falls to the communists, Kim gets lost in a mad rush to the American embassy and is left behind while Chris flies out of her life, his helicopter roaring.

With a dramatic flurry of waving red flags and marching troops, the story fast-forwards to 1978, where Kim is struggling in Ho Chi Minh City. The naughty strippers have become the servants of a regime that allows them little freedom. Dressed in army green, with her hair demurely combed back, Kim looks like a true believer. But she has a secret, a child, a bui-doi. Half-Vietnamese and half-Caucasian, the toddler is her joy and her curse. The "half-breed" is considered a pariah in her world, thus she perpetually hopes that Chris will somehow return; she remains steadfast in her foolish belief that he will take her and her son to America, the land of dreams. There is little else she can do. What follows is her tragic search across a landscape blown apart by war and poverty.

Along the way she gets some help. The Engineer resurfaces, offering her some bureaucratic savvy but also much grief. He helps her only because he believes she and her child are his ticket to the States. In "The American Dream," one of the best numbers, Foronda oozes across the stage with a trickster smile, singing about his gut desire to taste the lurid sweetness of the American myth: "Call girls are lining Time square ... bums there have money to spare ... cars that have bars take you there, the American dream."

The entire cast is powerful, and for good reason: Most have spent time with the Broadway production. Hinton Battle, who plays John, Chris's angst-filled friend, won a Tony in 1992 for his portrayal of the marine with a heart of gold. He opens the second act with "Bui-Doi," a deeply felt tune about the fatherless children that the Americans left behind. The elegant, almost old-fashioned show doesn't fit easily into the Arena's theater-in-the-round configuration, but director Bruce Lumpkin makes it work.

A word of warning for those who've seen and loved the Broadway spectacle: There is no place in the Arena for a real chopper to descend onto the stage, as it did so sensationally in New York. Instead, designers John Farrell and Beth Berkeley have created theatrical magic from the more modest wonders of surround sound, bright lights and an enormous fog machine. The effect is moving, if not pyrotechnic.

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Lee Williams