The helicopter that descends from the rafters in the current Broadway revival of MISS SAIGON, like the rest of this elaborate, overblown production, is bigger but not better than the 1989 London and 1991 New York originals. British impresario Cameron Makintosh produces again, and bills this revival as a “new production”. Still, one’s left scratching one’s head: why revive?
A re-telling of MADAME BUTTERFLY, adapted to the Vietnam War, MISS SAIGON was a sensation back in the day. The scene of the helicopter on the roof of the US Embassy, a novel gimmick following-up on the crashing chandelier in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, added to the string of spectacles associated with West End imports to Broadway. The casting of British actor Jonathan Pryce, clearly of Anglo stock, as a French-Vietnamese mongrel and the pimp who anchors the story, generated much-publicized controversy, too. And, it was the first, major show to tackle musically Vietnam. Since then, the world has changed: dramatic introspection about Vietnam in a time obsessed with global terrorism seems irrelevant, and musicalization of it, trivial at best, almost meaningless. Perhaps the calculation is that any adaptation of the beloved Puccini opera has timeless appeal.
In 1975, just before the fall of Saigon, Chris, a jaded American Marine lieutenant, with his GI buddies, visits a bar cum brothel run by Engineer, whose prize for the evening is Kim, a peasant girl from farming village - and virgin. Chris falls immediately in love with Kim, she with him: they exchange wedding vows in a ceremony devised by her girlfriends but when the US Embassy is besieged Kim fails in getting through its gates and out of the country. The story shifts to 1978: Chris is married, living contentedly in Atlanta. Kim, with a 3-year old son, still exploited by Engineer, is working in a Bangkok brothel. Chris returns there, with his American wife, to assist Kim, who still believes, like Butterfly, that he has returned to rescue her and live happily ever after. Not quite.
Conceived, with book by Alain Boublil (lyrics, too) and Claude-Michel Schonberg (lyrics and the music) , responsible for the global musical phenomena LES MISERABLES, this MISS SAIGON, originally produced in London several years ago, is directed by Laurence Connor, who specializes in mounting international productions of LES MIZ and PHANTOM . Cut from the same cloth, MISS SAIGON is a big-budget musical and it shows: multiple moving set pieces, framed by a bamboo structure extending beyond the proscenium and a huge ensemble of over three dozen of the hunkiest American chorus guys and the sexiest -and uncannily uniformly shapely - Asian or mixed Asian gals Broadway has seen.
Bob Avian, Michael Bennett’s collaborator on A CHORUS LINE and all of Bennett’s productions, brilliantly handles the musical staging, which is the most reliable source of energy the production has because there’s not much vitality in the lead performances. Alistair Brammer (Chris) and newcomer Eva Noblezada (Kim) sing commendably, but their acting lacks real drama. The only really theatrical performance is that of Jon Jon Briones who brings an over-the top, creepy, carnal, sleaziness to the role of Engineer. This Eurasian scum, who is using Kim to procure a US visa, is conniving villain and pathetic lowlife both. Brine’s exploits his short, wiry frame inventively, at times slithering about the stage snake-like, other times thrusting his pelvis like the pole-dancers in his employ.
Melody in Schonberg’s’ mostly sung-through score seems elusive, although it’s punctuated with familiar chords from the Puccini opera. Most of the songs seem fungible with the rest. Most successful, entertaining , and distinctive is Engineer’s 11 o’clock number, “The American Dream” , a wicked, scathing indictment of American culture (“you can sell shit and get thanks that's what I learned from the Yanks” ) that chronicles Engineer’s survival and projects his own corrupt, cynical code on his dream of getting to the US.
Connor and Avian stage Engineer’s fantasy as a brash, 1970s Las Vegas extravaganza with scantily-clad, sequined showgirls and a male chorus in baby-blue, Liberace-style polyester tuxedos. A Cadillac, with a naked pin-up girl, spews from the mouth of the Statue of Liberty. Briones leads it all with with ghoulish delight and depravity.
The new helicopter, developed by scenic designers Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, first appears as a three-dimensional, digitalized video projection that sweeps in from above the audience, then hovers above the stage, where, with clever lighting, it morphs into a real craft, which lifts Chris away, then swoops away, back over the audience. Luke Hall takes credit for this video design, Mick Potter for the sound of the chopper’s penetrating volume that oscillates with every maneuver of the craft. The powerful, terrorizing, machine is a deafening, airborne apocalypse and the show’s most theatrical moment. Now, like in 1991, spectacle rules
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