Perhaps the third time is the charm? Producer Cameron Mackintosh and I have a love/hate relationship. I’m very grateful to the man for financing some of my all-time favorite shows. But I also hate that he has closed the original versions of some of his biggest hits in favor of newer versions that while no-doubt more cost-effective, are unfortunately not nearly as impressive as their forefathers. The recent tours of LES MISERABLES and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA are two of these shows. With the arrival of MISS SAIGON, we finally find out if he can actually make one of his shows better with a “newer” version.
MISS SAIGON has a fairly straightforward story: In the days leading up to the fall of Saigon in 1975, an American G.I. named Chris falls in love with a Vietnamese bar girl named Kim. Their whirlwind romance plays out against the backdrop of the chaotic evacuation of the U.S. Embassy. Promises are made and a better life lies ahead for both. As they celebrate their love and their future, the story jumps ahead three years to the renamed Ho Chi Minh City, where there is no sign of Chris and Kim is in hiding. What has happened? Did he abandon her? Is he even alive? And what has happened to The Engineer, who introduced the two of them and used to run the hottest club in Saigon? There’s also the story of Thuy, who when we first meet him is an idealistic nobody coming to collect on a promise. Now, he’s a powerful figure in a corrupt army and he will use that new-found strength to achieve his goals. I’m trying to be as vague as possible to not reveal key plot points. The story will eventually take us back to the U.S., where we will get some answers about Chris’s fate and that of his friend John, and then to Bangkok, where Vietnamese refugees are desperately trying to get to America but finding life much the same, or perhaps worse, than their home country. MISS SAIGON does something very clever – it doesn’t give you all the answers until mid-way through Act Two, when the famous helicopter scene arrives to fill in the blanks. In a roughly ten minute sequence, MISS SAIGON recreates the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in stunning and heartbreaking realism, from the barbed wire fences to the heavily armed soldiers trying to hold back the advancing crowds. The city is about to fall and these people will say or do anything to leave. When the helicopter finally appears, it is a thrilling moment, perhaps even done with more realism in this revival than in previous versions. The noise from the aircraft is almost deafening and the spinning rotor blades, which span the entire width of the stage, seem as threatening as the crowd below.
The original Broadway production of MISS SAIGON, which I was lucky enough to see, almost never happened. After becoming an instant hit in England, producer Cameron Mackintosh decided to bring the show to New York rather quickly and with the two stars of the show, Jonathan Pryce (The Engineer) and Lea Salonga (Kim), intact. They had both received rave reviews and many awards in London, so wanting to have them open the NY production was a no-brainer. The show was announced and ticket sales hit a record for advanced sales on Broadway. It was the first show with a top ticket price of $100. Then Actor’s Equity stepped in.
In an effort to protect American actors, the union objected to the use of a British actor (Pryce) and furthermore objected in that he (a white man) was playing an Eurasian character. They threatened to block Pryce’s permit to perform. Mackintosh stood firm. The battle went back and forth, ultimately with the MISS SAIGON team threatening to cancel the Broadway run and refund the over $24 million advance. Equity backed down but successfully negotiated an agreement on all future productions. First, the character of “The Engineer” would thereafter always be played by an actor of Asian descent, while the character of “John” would also be listed on the audition notices as a minority. The show again opened to mostly positive reviews, was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, and won three (Pryce, Salonga, and Hinton Battle as “John”). I’m certainly not trying to spark a race debate, but with character being a “half-breed” (their words, not mine) you’d think that any actor who fits part of that blend would be okay. He’s supposed to be a mix of French and Asian.
As good as the Broadway production was, the original US National Tour was perhaps the best version of the show. The touring set was massive and entirely automated, including giant paper roll-up shades surrounding the stage area, rolling up to allow scenery to slide on, closing completely to create the closed-in feeling of a hotel room or the US Embassy. And when the screens disappeared completely to reveal a totally blacked out background, it was the perfect setting for Kim’s nightmare in Act Two where the evacuation of Saigon is brilliantly re-staged in chilling fashion. And of course, there was the helicopter, perhaps MISS SAIGON’s most famous character. When the aircraft arrives, seemingly having flown over the audience, it is a stunning moment. What plays out next is one of the most heartbreaking and dramatic moments ever seen on stage.
Where MISS SAIGON succeeds in storytelling, however, is not in the spectacle, but in the music and lyrics. On the whole, this is a gorgeous score (from the same composers who wrote LES MISERABLES) and there are many memorable songs. There are soaring, epic moments like “This Is The Hour” and quieter, more intimate moments like “Sun and Moon.” Then there are songs that seem to find ways to have both, like “Last Night of the World” and “I’d Give My Life for You.” There’s even some political commentary in the form of “The American Dream” with The Engineer, who is in essence a pimp and a con man, yet possesses a surprising wisdom about the way the world truly works and the “image” of prosperity versus the reality. Going into tonight’s performance, I knew that some of the lyrics to these songs had been changed. I had heard recordings of the new version and was not thrilled by the changes on paper. I was curious to see how they played out during a live performance. Perhaps, taken as a whole piece, they would work better.
Unfortunately, the new lyrics and dialogue seem to be more “change for the sake of change” and less improvement to the overall narrative. There were certainly some lyrics in the original version that were cringe-worthy, particularly:
This little girl we could be in the sack
For what it costs me to buy a Big Mac
Let’s face it – Big Mac isn’t going to play well in most songs, but this is a show set in the 1970s and there will be contemporary references within the lyrics. But there were many other examples of changed lyrics in last night’s performance that did nothing to improve on the original or help put the story in a better or more focused light. In fact, there were times where the new lyrics seemed even more uneven, muddled, and perhaps even clunky when compared to the original. The Big Mac line is gone and really it’s a throw-away moment to begin with, but why change key parts of the more important songs like “I Still Believe” or “The Heat is On in Saigon” when you’ve done nothing to make them better? There’s even a whole new song – “Maybe” – which is supposedly an improved song for the character of Ellen. Her character plays an important part in the story but only appears in a couple of scenes. So I can understand the importance of getting her “image” right. Originally, her solo was called “Her or Me” and it was considered, by the creative team, to be too confrontational and made her a less sympathetic character. So that song was changed to the (in my opinion much better) “Now That I’ve Seen Her.” Parts of the original song were still there (including the entire melody) but it was softened a bit, giving her sympathy but also a strong will about what she wants. For a character who might be on stage all of 10 to 15 minutes in an almost three hour show, this was the best you were going to do. But as I’ve mentioned, this creative team loves to tinker and now they’ve completely eliminated the old version in favor of “Maybe.” Not only is it the weakest song in the score, it is really not even a song in the traditional sense. It reminded me of “Letter from the Refuge” from NEWSIES, which was added after the Broadway run to strengthen the character of Crutchie. It wanders and narrates but never finds a true melody or anything memorable. But at least in NEWSIES, it was interesting and told a story. “Maybe” is a sharp downgrade from either of the previous two options. Creators always hope for a moment that stops the show, but this one does it in a way they never intended.
The good news is that of the three “revisals” (PHANTOM, LES MIS, SAIGON), this one fares the best in its new form. The staging is impressive, opting for a set consisting of two wooden/bamboo style two-story buildings on either side of the stage and using larger set pieces in the center for the bar in Saigon, a hotel room in Bangkok, or the U.S. Embassy. It was nice to see some of the lighting effects remaining in place from the original staging, particularly a beautiful moment early on during “The Movie in My Mind” where as the action in the bar plays out, the bar girls are isolated in individual spotlights as their dreams of a new life play out in their heads. Thankfully, the creators also left some of the most powerful lyrics in the show in this number, particularly where it starts with:
They are not nice, they’re mostly noise
They swear like men, they screw like boys
Later, the song twists those lyrics even more:
They are not nice, they’re mostly noise
They kill like men, they die like boys
There were some small issues with sound, mostly in the mixing. MISS SAIGON is a pop opera and many of the numbers are powerful and strongly sung. However, there were times where the orchestra seemed low compared to the singers, and at other times the singers themselves seemed overblown, a combination I suspect of being over-amplified and also over-singing at times. There were moments where the singing, particularly on the big “money” notes, felt a bit forced or overblown. It’s a fine line between soaring and distorting, and unfortunately the show found itself on the wrong side of that divider on more than one occasion.
The cast was mostly strong, with Emily Bautista (who understudied the role on Broadway) making a fine Kim. She is part of a whopping fifteen numbers in the show and is rarely off stage, making this one of the more difficult female roles in musical theatre. Strong throughout, Bautista finds her best moments mostly in Act Two in Kim’s more powerful/desperate moments. Red Concepcion was fine as The Engineer, although I must admit he would rank low on my list of favorites I’ve seen in the part. I’m not sure how much of it was his personal acting choices and how much was directorial in nature, but I found the character to be more hard-edged in this version and less sympathetic because of it. He’s a guy who would do anything to survive, but in pervious versions he also had a heart and was even somewhat lovable. Here, he’s much more hard-edged and I think that is at the character’s peril. Anthony Festa did a lovely job as Chris and reminded me of the original London actor Simon Bowman in some ways. He has a very powerful voice, but he was one of the people who seemed to suffer at times from the “overblown” sound. J. Daughtry was wonderful as John, perhaps one of the best I’ve seen. Most of the time he is on stage, the action is frantic and it is hard for the character to establish itself. But in the Act Two opener “Bui Doi,” he finds a chance to show off his powerful voice while showing us (with chilling video) the price of the war on society’s most innocent members – the children. MISS SAIGON may be fiction set in a real moment in history, but as the story of the “dust of life” plays out in this scene, you know that their plight was real and that stories like this actually happened. Jinwoo Jung does the most he can with the small role of Thuy, singing one of the show’s most beautiful melodies during his plea to his beloved. Stacie Bono also deserves recognition for her performance as Ellen. Although she’s given the worst song in the show (and not the chance to sing the much better previous version) she does her best with it and finds the right blend of anger and sympathy in her other scenes.
While the helicopter is very impressive, there was another staging moment that deserves to be mentioned. I have to be careful what I say, as it involves a major spoiler and plot point. What I can say is this: A character who dies in act one returns as a ghost in the second act. In previous versions, this person appeared center stage, sometimes on a small riser, but generally just walked forward to “torment” the person they are haunting. In this new revised version, the “ghost” rises from behind the center set, appearing to levitate above it. Then, as their song swells, they “float” over to the window of the set and walk through, entering the room and using the furniture as stairs to eventually stand next to the other person. No doubt a very simple trick behind the scenes, but on a mostly dark stage, it was an incredibly impressive and effective moment. This revisal, much like the recent new staging of LES MISERABLES, strives to be more “gritty” and realistic. At times, this serves the story well. Other times, it makes it harder to care about the characters. The original version (mostly) found the right balance here, while this newer vision gets it right about 80% of the time.
With the current immigration crisis in America, MISS SAIGON plays a bit differently than it did two decades ago when it premiered. The irony of the Saigon club’s name, “Dream Land,” is sharper. For the marines, this is a dreamland where they can escape the crumbling world around them, while the workers find it to be a metaphor for a place far away where they will hopefully find a new and better life. The song “Sun and Moon” has a new layer of meaning. Early on, Chris and Kim sing of their love:
You are sunlight, and I moon
Brightening the sky with the flame of love
The problem is, the sun and moon are on opposite sides and the two will never fully meet. Perhaps more than any other song in the show, it illustrates both the beauty and the horror behind the story and the dreams that people have. Perhaps that’s why the creators chose one line from that song to repeat several times:
“How in one night have we come so far?”
The first time the line appears, it is as Kim and Chris are falling in love. I can’t believe we’re here and we have each other. Is this real? It’s a moment of excitement but also tinged with a bit of hesitancy. Can I trust this?
The second time this line is uttered, it is hopeful. One of the characters is within reach of something they’ve been striving to find for over three years.
You’ll have to see the show to find out the context of the final time this lyric appears.
***1/2 out of *****
Book & Lyrics by Alain Boublil
Concept, Book & Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg
Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.
Additional Lyrics by Michael Mahler
Directed by Laurence Connor
Broadway Across America – The Hobby Center
Through May 12th
Photo: A scene from “Miss Saigon” at Broadway Across America at The Hobby Center.