BWW Review: MISS SAIGON at Broadway In Portland
I walked with some trepidation into the Keller Auditorium to see MISS SAIGON. I was 12 when it first came out (1989), and being the musical nerd that I am, I bought the soundtrack as soon as it was available and immediately set out to memorize every word. I saw the show twice in the 90s, once in Seattle and once in New York, and was enamored by the tragic love story and, of course, the helicopter. I didn't get the political stuff at all.
I also had no idea about the controversy clouding the show. I was ignorant about the pervasive racism in our society and how shows like MISS SAIGON can contribute to it.
[Spoiler alert!] Very briefly, MISS SAIGON tells the story of an American G.I. (Chris) and a Vietnamese prostitute (Kim) who fall in love during the Vietnam War. He tries to get her out, but can't. Fast-forward three years and we find Chris married to an American woman (Ellen) and Kim working at a bar in Bangkok to support herself and her and Chris's son until Chris finally shows up and takes them to the United States. When Kim learns about Ellen and realizing that her dream of being with Chris is no longer an option, she kills herself so that Chris will take their son back to America.
MISS SAIGON has drawn protests since it opened with a white actor playing the central role of the Engineer, an Asian character. That practice was stopped long ago, but the controversy hasn't. Many people continue to criticize the show for perpetuating negative stereotypes of Asian people as weak, conniving, and in need of saving by white people (see novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen's recent editorial in The New York Times).
Not everyone sees it that way. MISS SAIGON provides some spectacular roles for Asian actors, who are massively underrepresented in theatre. And many, like Emily Bautista, who's currently starring as Kim in the national tour, don't see those characters in the same light as the critics. Bautista, who's Filipino-American, said in a recent interview: "Being an Asian-American actress, this is one of the roles I've wanted to play because of how strong she is. I can't begin to describe how proud I am to be able to portray a character like Kim." She asks audiences to attend with an open mind and heart.
So, what do we do with MISS SAIGON? Do we close the curtain on it, like Nguyen suggests? Or do we approach it with an open mind and heart, like Bautista advises?
After watching the new production, I vote the latter. I am less ignorant than I used to be, and I can see the problems the critics point out. I also think MISS SAIGON has a lot more nuance than its often given credit for.
Here's what I saw.
The MISS SAIGON currently on stage is not the same one that opened in 1989. Director Laurence Connor worked with the production original team to "[rewrite] huge sections of the lyrics, because sometimes they seemed to be flippant." They also changed many visual components, consulting documentary footage from the Vietnam War to make the show "less theatrical."
One of the criticisms of MISS SAIGON is that it portrays Asian characters, especially Kim, as weak. One particularly unflattering review of the 2017 Broadway production had this to say: "...it is the relentless victimhood of Kim in MISS SAIGON that is disturbing. Her story doesn't have an arc. Throughout we watch her entire lack of agency, the total persecution and exploitation visited upon her and abject circumstances, culminating in her suicide-and with no respite from that. Happiness is never a possibility for her. Any kind of empowerment is never a possibility for her. She is trodden on over and over again."
At the performance I saw, Kim was played by Kai An Chee (Bautista's understudy), and I don't believe she views Kim as someone with no agency. I was sitting close enough to be able to see her eyes, and what I saw was ferocity. Yes, Kim is faced with abject circumstances and difficult choices. But she does, indeed, make choices. She does what she needs to do so she and her son can survive. When those two things come into conflict, she again makes a choice. There are a lot of people in the world (and in musicals, e.g., Fantine) for whom happiness and empowerment - in the narrow, privileged way we think about these things - are never possibilities. That doesn't mean their stories aren't worth telling, and it also doesn't mean they're relegated to victimhood.
Another criticism is that MISS SAIGON perpetuates a white savior fantasy. I saw the opposite. The women who work at Dreamland (the nightclub in Saigon) see the American soldiers for what they are: entitled jerks with oversized egos. Chris isn't special. He's just looking for a purpose, which he believes he finds in saving Kim. He fails horribly, moves on, and then, when confronted with the fact that he has a son, makes himself into the victim. That's no savior.
Finally, the character of the Engineer has been criticized for hating himself because he's not white, reinforcing the idea that white people are superior. What struck me most when watching Red Concepción's spectacular performance was that he doesn't want to go to America because it's better. He wants to go because it's worse. While we see greed and corruption and exploitation on display in Saigon and Bangkok, the clear message, especially in the show-stopping number "The American Dream," is that the United States is greedier, more corrupt, and more exploitative. Thus, a charming but sleazy "entrepreneur" like himself could do very well.
Overall, I think MISS SAIGON is well worth a watch, perhaps now more than ever. I'm no longer enamored by the tragic love story - I don't even see it as a love story anymore. It's probably due to a combination of Kai An Chee and Red Concepción's powerful performances and the mud-colored glasses I'm looking through at the moment, but this time around, I saw it as an indictment of American culture rather than a celebration of it. And that's something I find fascinating.
I still really like the helicopter.
MISS SAIGON runs through November 10. More details and tickets here.