BWW Review: MISS SAIGON Tour Lands At OKC Broadway, A Sensational Production Of A Problematic Show
MISS SAIGON, originally premiering in London in 1989 and on Broadway in 1991, is best known for its spectacle - specifically the massive helicopter that descends onto the stage - and its ravishing "popera" score from Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg (the creators of LES MISERABLES), and Richard Maltby Jr. Loosely based on the opera MADAMA BUTTERFLY, restaging MISS SAIGON in 2020, however, feels more unsteady than it might have 30 years ago. Still, the tour MISS SAIGON is a heartbreaking, epic, sensational production of a problematic show.
The acting and singing in the cast is uniformly solid. At the heart of the story are our ill-fated lovers Kim and Chris. The anchor of this show is Emily Bautista's performance as Kim. Much is asked of the actor who plays this role, and Bautista's strength, vulnerability, and vocal prowess ensure we never miss a moment, however grand or subtle, of Kim's journey. Her powerhouse belting in songs like "I'd Give My Life For You" and "Room 317" is equally balanced with an appropriately trembling soprano in "Sun and Moon" and "Little God of My Heart." The American Hero of the story, Chris - portrayed by the dashing Anthony Festa - explores the recklessness and pain of soldiers from this war; though I must say, in regards to the storytelling of the character, the "American Savior" trope often feels wearisome. However, from a performance standpoint, Mr. Festa sings with strong technique and assuredness, while in the scenework he explores a deep vulnerability beneath the layers of toxic masculinity the Vietnam War has blanketed over Chris.
A standout moment early in the show came from Christine Bunuan singing in "The Movie In My Mind." One of the few moments written into the show that truly offers the female ensemble a worthy moment of human exploration, Bunuan made the most of it - her performance of Gigi's achingly earnest desire to escape her surroundings was brought to life with her soaring vocals, making a lasting impression on the audience. More on the Women's Ensemble - Anna-Lee Wright, Jonelle Margallo, Rae Leigh Case, Madoka Koguchi, Jackie Nguyen, Keila Halili, Keely Hutton, and Francesca Nong - this fiercely talented group of powerhouse performers electrify the stage anytime they appear. While I'm always grateful for more opportunities for Asian actors in an entertainment industry that usually focuses stories from a white man's perspective, it seemed like the main task required of these women was, more often than not, objectification. Though I'm not pleased with the show's creators for the lack of richer material to showcase their talents, these women are the beating pulse of MISS SAIGON and deserve all the accolades they receive at curtain call.
J. Daughtry brings the house down as John in the Act 2 opener "Bui Doi," his elastic and supple voice being showcased to the fullest. Though the staging of the song seems to fetishize its subject matter (though perhaps it raises awareness of the children left behind after the war?) that's another issue I have with the show in and of itself - Daughtry's performance and vocal dexterity are superb. Ellie Fishman portrays Chris' new wife Ellen; her standoff with Kim in "Room 317" and heart-wrenching rendition of "Maybe" bring new layers of empathy to a character who could easily be seen as "the other woman" in the audience's eyes. Brava, Ms. Fishman.
A few smaller, but very impactful roles stood out to me: in his brief but integral scenes, Jinwoo Jung's portrayal of Thuy makes a striking impact - first as a scared, forgotten refugee of a war-torn country, and then as a powerful, manipulative leader in the new government. The role of Kim's son Tam is split among four actors: the night I attended, the adorable Ryker Huetter was performing. Though never speaking a word, Huetter made quite the impact, even earning the final bow of the night.
Setting aside for a moment the rest of the amazing talent gracing the stage, the true star of MISS SAIGON is Red Concepción as The Engineer. Never known by any other name, Concepción's Engineer both offends and dazzles us - often at the same time. We are drawn to his plight for a better life, but repulsed by the way he goes about it. Concepción's rendition of "The American Dream" is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, and a true 11-o'clock-number to bring our evening to a satisfying climax.
While the performances are the heart and soul of MISS SAIGON, the technical elements, direction, and staging are the magic that brings it all together. Based on a Design Concept by Adrian Vaux and Production Design by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, the technical elements in this tour are some of the best I've ever seen for a production on the road. Particularly striking was the Lighting Design by Bruno Poet: darkness and shadow contrast with garish color, creating a gloriously destitute world for these characters to inhabit. Adding crisp and velvety texture are the wonderful Projections by Luke Halls and evocative Sound Design by Mick Potter. The lush Costumes from Andreane Neofitou are memorable from scene to scene - the club dancers of Bangkok to the Dragon Acrobats to the Vietnamese soldiers - Neofitou's artistry is splendidly showcased. The voices and orchestra sounded fantastic thanks to Musical Supervisor James Moore and Music Director Will Curry.
Recreating the original choreography from Bob Avian and Geoffrey Garratt, and the revival's direction from Laurence Connor, are the various Resident / Associate Directors and Choreographers: Ryan Emmons, Jesse Robb, and Seth Sklar-Heyn. Their work, both the original and the tour's restaging, is masterful and makes the Civic Center stage sizzle with heat and and melt with magnificence.
All in all, MISS SAIGON brings devastating, gritty realism to some problematic events, both politically and personally. While the show's writing itself may be dated at times, the production values and performances are first class, and I'm grateful to OKC Broadway for bringing in these tours of the highest caliber.