THE BASICS: MISS SAIGON, Cameron Mackintosh’s North American Tour of the Broadway musical presented by Shea’s and Albert Nocciolino opened on February 26 and runs through March 3, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30, Friday at 8, Saturday at 2 and 8, and Sunday at 2 & 7 at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main Street (1-800-745-3000). www.sheas.org Runtime: 2-1/2 hours with one intermission (full service bar, snacks, souvenirs, the usual)
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Chris, an American G.I., falls in love with Kim, an innocent young Vietnamese woman who has wandered from her devastated rural home into Saigon. Chris encounters Kim on her first day employed at a dance hall/sex club run by The Engineer. Against advice on both sides (from Chris’s friend John, and from Kim’s arranged betrothed Thuy) they marry anyway in a wedding ceremony put together by Kim’s fellow dancer/sex workers. During the fall of Saigon, the two lovers are separated. Chris goes home to Atlanta, and after a year of disorientation, gets his life back on track with Ellen, his new American bride. Meanwhile, Kim delivers her and Chris’s son, whom she names Tam, and The Engineer helps her emigrate to Bangkok, where he hopes that the child, the son of an American, a child he whom he now calls his nephew, will be his “ticket” to the American Dream. John, now working on orphan relief efforts, discovers Kim and Tam, and arranges a meeting in Bangkok with Chris and Ellen. Things do not go well.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Just as the musical RENT is based loosely on the opera LA BOHEME by Giacomo Puccini, MISS SAIGON comes from Puccini’s opera of an American Navy officer and a Japanese Geisha, MADAMA BUTTERFLY. The principle differences here are that in the opera the American Lt. Pinkerton actively seeks out a short-term companion and it’s obvious that he’s a “love ‘em and leave ‘em” guy from the start. In MISS SAIGON, Chris the Marine is reluctant at first, only succumbing to the thunderbolt that is love and, later, despite great efforts to leave for America with his bride Kim, is prevented from doing so by the chaos of the “fall” of Saigon. So Chris is a much more sympathetic character than Pinkerton.
The other big difference is the expansion of the role of the opera’s “Goro,” who is a somewhat matter of fact arranger of sham “marriages” between Japanese women and American military men. In MISS SAIGON, this role is greatly expanded into a low level but incredibly high energy hustler who “engineers” things (for a price) named The Engineer. In this production, that role is played with great gusto by Red Concepción, heard here in conversation and seen here with the entire cast in a theatrical trailer.
The classic A-B-A form of a love story is A: girl and boy meet, B: complications ensue, A: girl and boy reunite and live happily ever after. The darker “modernist” version is A-B-C in which the lovers meet, complications ensue, and they do NOT get back together, but the survivors learn something about themselves and we, the audience, learn something, too. A problem here is that maybe we don’t want to learn those lessons, especially watching Kim, mother of Tam, feeling forced into a really bad decision.
But one character who learned who he was and formed a solid view of how life works at a very tender age pimping for his mother is The Engineer. He is the most consistent character, almost the “whack-a-mole” of entrepreneurs. Knock him down and he pops right back up somewhere else in his dogged pursuit of “The American Dream” replete with blondes in furs and Cadillac convertibles. Some may find his singularity of purpose, getting to America, and his lack of subtlety off-putting, but he is one engaging character, no doubt about it.
The musical is by Boublil and Schönberg, the team that created LES MISÉRABLES, with co-lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. in a production that opened in London in 1989, was brought to Broadway, then revived in London in 2014, brought back to Broadway, and is now on tour in America.
The seven best things about this current production at Shea’s:
- The high energy – even the love songs are at peak emotional intensity – and Act II is even more so
- Red Concepción’s conception of The Engineer which is very human, very engaging, high energy, and very funny
- The big “Broadway” production number “The American Dream” is just over the top.
- The orchestra is big – 15 players – chock full of really cool instruments, including a complete string quartet, Asian Flutes, a Flugelhorn, an English Horn, and a Bass Trombone, to name a few things you don’t usually get in a pit orchestra.
- The use of the movable chain-link and razor wire fences to show us the points of view of the Marines inside the Embassy compound and then quickly the POV of the Vietnamese outside, back and forth was very clever.
- When suddenly the individual fences combine to make the wall of the Embassy and the Huey helicopter appears? That was a moment.
- The kid(s) who play Tam, the 3-year-old son of Chris and Kim is (are) unbelievably cute.
The four worst things about this current production at Shea’s:
- On opening night, there was a problem with hearing the lyrics. I asked a number of people in different sections of different ages, and everyone reported that they could only hear clearly about half of the words.
- The high energy. As mentioned, even the tender love songs are sung at peak volume.
- In most musicals there’s the lead couple’s story and then a second story, often that of “the best friend,” sometimes referred to as “the B story line” that provides dramatic or comic relief. Here that relief function was provided by The Engineer’s story, but a love of money isn’t quite the romantic tale that many might want.
- The lighting concept (credited to Bruno Poet) was too dark for my taste.
The two best things you can do before you attend this current production at Shea’s:
- Read up on the story and get familiar with it, because things happen quickly, with settings going from Saigon 1975 to both Ho Chi Minh City and Atlanta in April, 1978, to Bangkok in 1978, back to Saigon 1975, back to Bangkok in 1978. I was surprised at the number of people who said that they knew nothing about this musical before they came.
- Listen to the cast album and get familiar with the lyrics. If you ask Siri (Apple Music) she defaults to the London 1989 cast, but if you can, you should listen to the cast album of the London 2014 revival.
Lead image: Red Concepción as ‘The Engineer’ can get you anything you want | Photo by Matthew Murphy
UP NEXT: The play by Tony Kushner ANGELS IN AMERICA: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES at Shea’s Smith Theater, March 8 – 24 also MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET at Shea’s 710 Theater, March 14 – 31, and then RENT March 26 – 31.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!