REVIEW: ‘Miss Saigon’ is Still an Impressive Blockbuster of a Show

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

The helicopter scene in “Miss Saigon.” Photo Matthew Murphy and Johan Persson.

The chandelier in “Phantom.” The Barricade in “Les Misérables.” The swimming pool in “Sunset Boulevard.” These are iconic special effects and set piece spectacles that audiences have come to expect from the blockbuster musicals of the 1980s. The legendary helicopter in “Miss Saigon” and its rotating blades of American glory lifting off from the U.S. Embassy falls into that same theatrical infamy as it lands at the Peace Center for a one-week tour of duty.

And Cameron Mackintosh’s re-boot of his 1989 re-imaging of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” set within the brutal confines of the Vietnam War, spares no expense in this revival that opened in the West End in 2014, before moving in 2017 to its initial New York home at the Broadway Theatre.

The helicopter scene and the sound effects are still very cool three decades later as is the new production design (Totie Driver and Matt Kinley) and Bruno Poet’s brilliant lighting (those overlapping beacons of light and the Bangkok neon red light district were quite striking).

Original costume designer Andreane Neofitou returns for this incarnation as does choreographer Bob Avian, whose “American Dream” sequence with Las Vegas showgirls and guys in perfect unison, is still breathtaking and the show’s most robust number.

This is Filipino actor Red Concepción’s shining moment as The Engineer, basking in his chance of living in America in this schmaltzy song-and-dance fantasy with a backdrop of the Statue of Liberty Face that echoes the head of communist leader Ho Chi Minh earlier in the show. As does the Vegas number parallel with the reckless, plasticity of Bangkok. A pimp who peddles anything from women, drugs and Rolex knock-offs to American soldiers on the eve of the Fall of Saigon. Brimming with wit in his 70s pimp suits and gold chains, Red Concepción manages to make this sleazebag, if just for a moment, a victim of the war too when his status is further diminished as an immigrant in Thailand.  

Written by the same team behind “Les Misérables” (Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil), with lyrics also by Richard Maltby, Jr., “Miss Saigon” is stacked with power ballads, classic tragic love resolution,  and a revolution with no clear purpose or mission.

The first night of the tour’s Greenville leg got off to an unsteady start in the sound department. The orchestra was marvelous and vibrant, but the vocals and sung dialogue were muddled for the entire opening DreamLand sequence in the Saigon strip club and the testosterone-fueled “The Heat is On in Saigon.”

But all was fine and forgotten by the time our virginal heroine Kim (Emily Bautista) along with an all-too-brief facetime with Christine Bunuan as Gigi, the seasoned “Miss Saigon” lady of the evening in a sublime “The Movie In My Mind,” beautifully illuminating their dire circumstances and options as casualties in this wretched conflict.

Kim, the peasant Vietnamese virgin who falls for handsome American G.I. Christopher Scott (a solid turn by pop tenor Anthony Festa, who has a quality of warmth and sincerity in “Why, God, Why?” And his chemistry with Bautista almost makes the love-at-first- sight operatic tragic outcome palpable.

The story, however, belongs to Bautista, who is in almost every scene. Though her arc is flatlined by the inevitable ending, she soars in this part that requires brute vocal stamina and svelte delivery. After all, she is playing a 17-year-old. “”I’d Give My Life for You,” “Sun and Moon,” the suicide scene, her clutching and devotion to her lovechild (on this evening played by the winsome youngster Tyler Dunn) – all consistently on fearless display, never once wavering, despite the breadth of abuse and degradation she suffers in our current landscape of the #MeToo movement.

And while the helicopter fly-in was indeed impressive, the projection of the copter preceding it was very weak. And the video of orphaned Vietnam kids during Act Two’s “Bui Doi,” was distracting. I was waiting for Sally Struthers to appear any minute.

The unjustness of the orphans abandoned by American servicemen is made apparent enough by John (J. Daughtry, who graced Greenville audiences last year with his portrayal of Harpo on “The Color Purple” tour) as the pal who initiated the Chris/Kim consummation and leads this post-“We Are The World” anthem with a chorus of soldiers, recalling the comradery of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” Less explored is John’s sudden hard-right turn on morals and his interest in the Bui Doi left behind in Vietnam.

This staging by Laurence Connor, If anything, seems darker (in lighting and tone), with a more grim, gritty aesthetic. And he certainly doesn’t hold back on the lascivious activities that transpire in a seedy strip club, with simulated sex, near-nudity, a male prostitute in S&M leather, and a number of LED strip poles.

Stacie Bono (who has performed locally at the Flat Rock Playhouse) plays the understanding, American wife, Ellen who gets a new song in this update, “Maybe.” And Jinwoo Jung gives a bold showing as Thuy, the spurned fiancé/ghost she kills in self-defense.

“Miss Saigon” continues through Sunday, January 20 at the Peace Center, 300 S. Main St. in Greenville. For tickets, call (864) 467-3000 or visit www.peaccenter.org.

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