Vietnam, via Broadway

On the eve of the Houston debut of Miss Saigon, producer Cameron Mackintosh was confident about his contribution to contemporary musical theater. "Not compromising the standards once the show leaves New York," he concluded via telephone from his London offices. "I insist on making the show the same wherever it goes."

This commitment to integrity has clearly paid off. Among his 300 productions all over the world, Les Miserables alone has come to Houston on four occasions, and each run has been SRO. Last summer he brought in Phantom of the Opera, which also sold out. A Mackintosh undertaking is almost always must-see; frequently it's the ticket of the season.

So is Saigon to die for? Yes, even with the best seats $60 a pop. Despite its faults -- and there are many, in both the show and this particular production -- Saigon is a profoundly emotional, stirringly visual invocation of a painful, poignant era: the Vietnam War. A Saigon that could play Houston has been three years in the making (it had to be redesigned to fit smaller stages). With Communist hordes paying military obeisance to an 18-foot-high golden statue of Ho Chi Minh, with a vintage white convertible Caddy floating down from the capitalist heavens of an American wannabe's reverie and with an American GI failing to get his Vietnamese fiancee onboard an 8,000 pound Marine helicopter that seemingly hovers on-stage during the fall of Saigon, it's well worth the wait. Saigon is nothing less than sublime theatrics. I saw the New York production, and from a technical standpoint Mackintosh is as good as his word about the tour: there's nothing cut-price here.

Written by Les Miserables creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schsnberg, Saigon borrows from Madame Butterfly to tell a rather simplistic, frequently bathetic, but still overwhelming story. It's love at first sight for Chris, an American Everyman Marine, and Kim, an innocent Vietnamese country girl reduced by the ravages of the "police action" to work as a bargirl in Saigon. Chris "buys" her for a time from a Eurasian hustler, known as the Engineer, who's raising cash to finance a journey from Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam. Chris and Kim are separated when the last chopper flees the fall of Saigon before she can get on it. Three years pass. Upon discovering that Kim has survived and is raising their son, Chris returns -- with his new stateside wife. Kim, whose love for Chris has kept her alive, is crushed. Her courage taking another turn, she sacrifices herself for her little boy.

The melodrama -- there is also a subplot involving Kim's arranged fiance, who wants to ethnically cleanse her impure child -- is so ripe it might seem as if it festers. In fact, the Act Two opener -- a cloying, cliched anthem pleading for homeless Amerasian children -- is so manipulative that it's accompanied by a feverish gospel choir and telethon-ish film clips. About the only insight Saigon comes up with is that the North Vietnamese were bad and that the American do-gooders didn't do all that good. Any references to the horrors of war are kept at a safe, off-stage distance.

No matter. Though there's reason enough to be outraged by how reductive and error-filled Saigon's version of this still contentious chapter in history is (check out the anachronistic hairdos), the show nevertheless singes the spirit and ignites the soul. Mining the strengths of many of the most important musicals of the last half-century (from expanding South Pacific's East-meets-West plot to transforming Cabaret's Emcee into the Engineer to turning Evita's parading Peronists into ritualistic Vietcong), Saigon grippingly conveys how doomed geopolitics can resonate from an individual love story. The metaphors burst from the romance, with Kim's pure devotion to one type of American dream in stirring contrast to the Engineer's corrupt worship of another. Chris, torn between loyalties, may be seen as the symbolic ambivalence of conscience. Saigon brings the war home in all the ways we remember -- and might want to forget.

It says a great deal about Saigon that the drama isn't upstaged by the technology. Except once: the celebrated helicopter scene. It occurs out of narrative order as a flashback, drawing attention to itself in a touristy way. But most of the time director Nicholas Hytner stays true to the vast powers of suggestion. So Act One climaxes with an outstretched hand helping refugees on a trek that's as uphill as the black, empty stage from which they're retreating. When the U.S. Embassy is stormed, Vietnamese scale chainlink fences in slow-motion, the action reduced to its most primal essence. And what better way to show the American dream than a chorus line of leisure-suited Elvises and scantily clad Marilyns? Hytner's direction mirrors the best of Saigon in that it's fluid, fundamental and crystalline. It's also expressly cinematic, thanks to lighting designer David Hersey, who accents the settings with tinges of Communist red, hovel yellow and ghostly white. After a midnight love scene, early morning heat rises over a peasant shack; there's smoky turbulence at the Embassy; a go-go strip explodes in cheap neon. The glory of Saigon is that it soars in its tragic intimacy.

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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Peter Szatmary