BWW Review: MISS SAIGON Broadway Tour Lands at the Hobby Center
Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Richard Maltby, Jr.'s MISS SAIGON is a staple of big-budget spectacle musicals that sprang from the likes of "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables." Where "Phantom" has the falling chandelier and "Les Mis" has the revolutionary barricade on a turntable, MISS SAIGON has an actual helicopter that shows up to dazzle the crowds.
The show debuted in London in 1989 and then came to Broadway in 1991 amidst all kinds of controversy. Actor's Equity protested the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer (a part they rightfully felt should have been portrayed by an Asian actor), and other Asian communities decried the portrayal of women as simple objects of lust for American soldiers. Despite all of that, the show was a monster hit and garnered many fans. This year, through May 12th, MISS SAIGON does a stint in Houston as part of the Mischer Neurosciences Broadway at the Hobby Center season.
The plot is super simple. The creative team took Puccini's beloved Opera "Madame Butterfly" from 20th century Japan and transplanted it into the end of the Vietnam War. Makes sense since Schönberg and Boublil had "borrowed" many "Madame Butterfly" melodies for their previous works. Why not take the story too?
Butterfly becomes a 17-year-old Vietnamese girl named Kim who is working her first night at a strip club called Dreamland when she meets American serviceman Chris (Puccini's Pinkerton). They fall in love, and he promises to get her to the United States as his bride. Things go awry as Kim's promised Vietnamese husband protests, and her oily pimp the Engineer tries to con his way to America as well. Saigon is evacuated, and Chris and Kim are separated during the chaos. Years pass by, and Kim and the Engineer end up in Bangkok after escaping the cruel reign of the Viet Cong. Turns out Kim has Chris's son, and through a program to find the children of servicemen she is located. Chris is now married, but he has to come back to the Orient with his wife to face what has happened from his love affair in the middle of a war.
MISS SAIGON feels like a sequel to "Les Miserables," only crossbred with "Cabaret." We get sleazy nightclubs and sweeping war scenes mixed together with a simple love story. In both of the Boublil and Schonberg shows, a hooker gets a pretty ballad about her plight. Fantine sings "I Dreamed a Dream" while a prostitute named Gigi gets "The Movie In My Mind" in MISS SAIGON. The entire feel of the show, from spinning scenery to soaring scores, is a theatrical bookend to "Les Miserables." Fans of one show should easily fall for the other. It's a lot of bluster and over the top drama combined with a surprisingly quiet and uncomplicated love story.
I came in wondering what MISS SAIGON has to say to audiences in 2019--thirty years after its debut. Finally, we have a racially diverse cast all playing appropriate parts. That wrong is finally righted. But beyond the multicultural casting, there is an acknowledgment of the insidiousness and hollowness of the American Dream as well as an exploration of the desires of the immigrants who get here. MISS SAIGON shows America during a war that felt hopeless and doesn't exactly make heroes of all the soldiers there. Act II begins with a song accompanied by real footage of orphans in Vietnam who were the progeny of servicemen, children left without a parent in the aftermath. It is a sobering moment. Also, the role of the Engineer reminds us of why greed is the perception of the American Dream, and dashes any idealism of our country's vision. Even if the plot is stolen from Puccini, it does have some unique things to say on its own.
The tour welcomes to Houston three remarkable leads to perform MISS SAIGON. Emily Bautista is the perfect actress to bring Kim to life. She has a pleasing voice, a fierce acting ability, and nails every moment with the right emotional gravitas. She's lovely, and audiences will be in her palm every night. Her performance rivals any of the Broadway actresses who have done the part. Anthony Festa as Chris is impressively physically built and has a soaring tenor. His fiery passion is a good match for Bautista's, and together we believe in their rather quick love affair and its lasting results. Red Conceptión steals the entire show with his sleazy treat of a performance as the Engineer. He one-ups the creep factor of the Emcee of CABARET, and turns in the eleventh-hour tour de force number with "The American Dream." He is easily MISS SAIGON's most valuable player, and his face should be on the side of that helicopter. The ensemble cast is by look forty members or above, and the singers and dancers are incredible in both areas. Among them, Christine Bunuan is a standout as Gigi who gets the best number in the show with the aforementioned "Movie in My Mind."
There is a dichotomy in the physical staging that plays out for MISS SAIGON where one part excels and the other disappoints. Technically the show is a lavish marvel offering a ton of visual delights. Matt Kinley's sets work wonders to create Saigon, Bangkok, and even Atlanta. The audience hasn't seen anything like this, and it's a wonder and well worth the price of admission for the sights alone. But there do seem to be obstacles with this tour. On opening night, the start was delayed almost an hour because of curtain issues with the helicopter. And the microphones seem to be having problems. A lot of the score is muddy with low levels on the singers, and second-night audiences reported sound went in and out during dramatic scenes to the detriment of the show's plot. Hopefully, these things will be worked out for the weekend.
Nevertheless, MISS SAIGON is a popular opera that is staged like a movie, and it zips along even at a nearly three hour running time. The old warhorse still has a lot to say to modern audiences, but I fear they may be too dazzled by the helicopter to even notice any of the woke moments happening. It's a show that begs to be seen even if it cribs Puccini, sometimes offends sensibilities, and has technical issues now and then. A held curtain and some messy microphones aren't going to ruin a high gloss spectacle like this.
MISS SAIGON plays through May 12, 2019. Hobby Center for Performing Arts, 800 Bagby Street. Tickets may be bought online at houston.broadway.com/shows/miss-saigon.
Parents cautioned. This show is not suitable for younger children. There are sexually suggestive sequences, partial nudity, and onstage violence involving guns and knives.
Photo by Matthew Murphy featuring Red Conceptión and the cast