Review: An Epic and Sweeping MISS SAIGON

Review: An Epic and Sweeping MISS SAIGON
Photo by Mathew Murphy

In Ho Chi Minh City (formally Saigon), what was called immediately after the end of the war as the Museum of Crimes of War and Aggression is now simply known as the more American tourist-friendly War Remnants Museum and it is one of the most popular museums in all of Vietnam.

43 years after the Vietnam war ended, the city is thriving. Street vendors sell spicy and fragrant pho or pork rolls. Shops like Saigon Kitsch peddle pop art to hipster tourists. The hotel that was once the home of the Saigon Bureaus of ABC, CBS and NBC and briefly called the Independence Hotel (to reflect the country's victory over the U.S.) is once again called "The Caravelle."

The hotel's rooftop, where foreign journalists once gathered for a front row seat to the military action happening around the city, now has a swank rooftop bar and one of the most popular cocktails is the sweet and refreshing "Miss Saigon."

The city, it seems, has moved on.

That isn't meant to construe that most Vietnamese forgive the U.S. government for the atrocities of massive bombings, Agent Orange and the lot. Life, however, goes on.

Perhaps it is too easy to simply forget the horrors of war. Despite the passage of more than four decades since the main conflict ended, it is a tad surprising that the Vietnam War-set MISS SAIGON would continue to resonate so much. The 1990's-era blockbuster spectacle once again returns to Chicago and it remains a breathtaking work of musical theater. If you enjoyed it previously, you will want to definitely catch it again.

The show has been tweaked slightly and the end result is a much more satisfying and (presumably) realistic, but it still has generated some criticism for its Anglo-European viewpoint. To some extent, it is hard not to at least partially agree. The show's stirring anthem "Bui Doi" (impeccably sung with all the "brimstone and fire" passion of a church sermon by J. Daughtry) is meant to be about all the bastard Vietnamese children of American G.I.s. And while "bui doi" does loosely translate to "the dust of life," it is a Vietnamese term applied to any homeless, orphan child -not just those with American fathers. The Western misunderstanding of language and culture continues, I guess.

Still, for me at least, the show has never been about how accurate of a portrayal the show is or was of the Vietnam War or how impressive the damn helicopter is as it lands on the U.S. Embassy (and make no mistake, the chopper is still a damn impressive piece of stagecraft). Schonberg and Boublil managed to capture a universal truth about motherhood; namely the sacrifices a mom will make out of her love for her child. To criticizing anything else misses the bigger point of the piece in my book.

As Kim, the naïve Vietnamese girl who flees the burning remnants of her tiny farming village to seek refuge (and employment) in the bustling city of Saigon, Emily Bautista is the emotional core of the show and rightfully so. Through her performance, she makes certain that you don't miss this universal truth. In particular, "I'd Give My Life For You" at the end of Act One will have many theatergoers wiping away tears as the lights come up at intermission.

The Engineer, who in the original piece served as emcee, anti-hero and star, has had his role diminished a bit. As played by Red Concepcion, he's a tad bit more sleazy and scheming. And yet, you do find him somewhat charming. That is no small task for an actor.

Chicago-based actress Christine Bunuan (AVENUE Q at Mercury Theatre and the Goodman's A CHRISTMAS CAROL, among many others) also shines as Gigi, a go-go dancer and prostitute whose aspirations extend beyond the boundaries of the seedy nightclub where she works. Her vocal work on "The Movie in My Mind" is emotionally heartfelt and soaring.

As Kim's clueless love interest Chris, Anthony Festa has a fine tenor voice and in "Why God Why" perfectly encapsulates the chaos and confusion that might come from falling in love as a country falls apart around you.

If my memory serves me, previous productions of "The Wedding Ceremony" were staged in such a way that you could almost believe that Chris didn't know the full extent of the commitment he was making to Kim. That is impossible here, though. I'd like to think our G.I.s weren't that culturally oblivious. Festa's character is supposed to be a driver for the U.S. Ambassador and one would expect him to have some knowledge of local culture from a diplomatic perspective, or he is the dumbest G.I. in Saigon. Suffice to say, the re-staging offers up a new conflict that it never really resolves.

All and all, the new revival production offers up a sweeping, epic and tragic romance that is befitting the operatic roots of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly."

MISS SAIGON plays the Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 W. Randolph) through Dec. 8. Tickets $35-$120. 800.775.2000 or www.broadwayinchicago.com

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From This Author Misha Davenport

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