Stylistically, "Miss Saigon" is a remnant of the bombastic, spectacle-driven, opera-meets-rock English mega-musicals that conquered Broadway in the '80s and '90s, such as "Les Miz" and Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats" and "Phantom." But as a piece of political theater that depicts Americans involved in a disastrous foreign war, cultural misunderstanding, the difficulties of emigrating to the U.S. as a refugee and the pursuit of success through shameless exploitation, "Miss Saigon" is more relevant and heartbreaking today than when it premiered on Broadway in 1991 at the same theater.
MISS SAIGON Broadway Reviews
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The story feels more urgent amid renewed refugee tragedies and our consciousness of the sex trade. And the narrative - helped by unusually graceful lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr. - almost distract from the generic Euro-pop ballads and anthems that sound like many we've heard before. There is still no distinction between the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, with no explanation for the civil war, and the fake documentary showing real international orphans still strikes me as shameless.
"Miss Saigon" is back, heartache and helicopter included, at the Broadway Theatre, where the musical began a Tony-winning ten-year run in 1991. This bracing new production from London reminds that whirlybirds can't whip up emotions. Only good actors can do that. The revival of the musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil ("Les Miserables") has plenty of them.
Call it the guilty pleasure of '80s nostalgia if you must, but revisiting the show at almost three decades' distance, I was unprepared to be so consistently entertained for the two-and-a-half-hour duration. Sure, it's a brash, broad-strokes saga with questionable racial and gender representation and a taste for salacious vulgarity. But although director Laurence Connor has adhered to the basic contours of the original, his grittier approach exposes teeth in the material that I don't recall previously being so sharp. That's most notable in the show's unflattering depiction of American foreign policy, viewed through the prism of a misguided war and the messy atonement efforts that followed.
Producer Cameron Mackintosh, the man behind the original production, backs this classy revitalization of an old, presumably boring property that proves to have plenty of life in it yet. The upscale revival should bring a tear to old-timers with romantic memories of the original schmaltzy score, while titillating newbies who were toddlers in the early 90s, when Bush was in the White House, women were wearing big-shouldered power suits, and excess was the name of the game, on Broadway as much as on Wall Street.
The sung-through musical echoes the lush melodies and themes from the composers' Les Miz score while peppering the narrative with politically satirical overtones. It falls on the Engineer to finesse the social commentary and comic relief, which Jon Jon Briones pulls off brilliantly. His biggest number "The American Dream" can't resist poking fun at our current ruler. This is a most worthy revival, and now, minus the controversy, fans are free to re-live the thrill.
Powerfully-voiced Eva Noblezada combines sensitive nobility and naiveté as Kim, and Alistair Brammer's rocker-belting Chris effectively displays the steady growth of post-traumatic stress disorder developed from his wartime experiences.
The revival of Boublil and Schönberg's sweeping musical "Miss Saigon" features two strong lead actors-one appealingly seedy, the other capable and tenacious. As when the musical first helicoptered onto Broadway in 1991, the famous hardware-heavy set deserves star billing, too.
Yet if "Miss Saigon" hasn't necessarily refined with age, this is nonetheless a handsome, accomplished production -- an artful application of lipstick on a pot-bellied pig. (It originated in London in 2014.) The director, Laurence Connor ("School of Rock"), does an exceptional job moving the more than three-dozen actors across a busy, sometimes cluttered set (designed by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley), and he keeps a firm grip on the potentially confusing storyline. When that famous helicopter arrives in the second act -- during a recreation of the Fall of Saigon -- it does so with eye- and ear-popping grandeur.
Eva Noblezada, this production's Kim, makes her Broadway debut and is probably the show's biggest wow (sorry, helicopter). Her voice doesn't falter as she rips through power ballad after power ballad. Her Chris, Alistair Brammer, is solid if a bit out-performed by his costars. In general, this new iteration, under the direction of Laurence Connor (School of Rock), has a more appropriately gritty feel than the show had in the '90s, from the physical set to the portrayal of Americans and the consequences of war. Still, it's a pretty darn schmaltzy show to begin with.
Still, Miss Saigon was, and is, a phenomenon, and this production, directed by Laurence Connor, is sensational in every way: visually and sonically (often painfully so). Most important, it's brilliantly cast, to continue the baseball analogy, with leads from the Mackintosh farm team who are more than ready for the big leagues.
It's not as if such stories don't still have the power to stir suspense and tears. But this eventful, sung-through production out of London, directed by Laurence Connor, feels about as affecting as a historical diorama, albeit a lavishly appointed one. (The lurid postcard set is by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, from a "design concept" by Adrian Vaux.) This despite the hard and dedicated work of its earnest cast, which includes a slithery Jon Jon Briones as an enterprising Vietnamese pimp, a dewy Eva Noblezada as a heroic country girl and Alistair Brammer as the American soldier who loves and leaves her. Though it sets off inevitable topical echoes with its tableau of asylum-seeking refugees, the show still mostly comes across as singing scenery.
A new revival of "Miss Saigon" opened Thursday at the Broadway Theatre, and once again the music is merely loud when it needs to be affecting. No ballad is allowed to be sung pianissimo or mezza voce for more than a few bars before being inflated into a huge anthem on thwarted love and/or political tyranny.
The familiar elements of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil's 1991 musical are faithfully replicated in the Broadway Theatre, where this all-too-mechanical revival, under Laurence Connor's direction, had its official opening Thursday night. That compulsory object of attention, the musical's Vietnam War-era military helicopter - which hit its mark 4,092 times in the original - swoops back in again on this occasion, its "blades" creating a whoosh that spreads a discernible wind over the audience. The design dexterity extends to cinematic Saigon streetscapes and heavenly sunsets by scenery creators Totie Driver and Matt Kinley and lighting designer Bruno Poet, and there's still bracing romanticism in a score played by an 18-member orchestra and conducted by James Moore. But even before the climactic evacuation scene of U.S.- and South Vietnamese-controlled Saigon, you're conscious of an absence. That would be the missing ingredient of outsize performances, to match what is supposed to be a politics-infused love story of epic scale.
But then the unrelieved hyper-emphasis of Laurence Connor's direction basically squashes whatever might be good in Miss Saigon. Certainly the rather delicate (if leather-lunged) performance of Eva Noblezada as Kim doesn't get far across the footlights; you can hardly find her half the time. Indeed, none of the signposts and pointers an audience might look to for advice about what's going on work properly: The sound is unspecific, the lighting is overbusy, and the set makes it seem as if everyone in the cast lives in everyone else's hovel. It is only in that Constructivist parade, and a few similar scenes, that the pressure is equalized between the overwrought style of the production and its overwrought content. But it's not a good sign when the most cogent parts of a musical about American perfidy are the ones that borrow a totalitarian aesthetic.
Is it impossible to find the entertainment in Miss Saigon, the epic musical that follows the tragedy of a virginal Vietnamese woman who falls for an American G.I. just as Saigon is falling in 1975, and the sacrifice she makes to ensure their son has the life she desires for him? As evidenced by the laughter and weepy sniffles around me a few nights ago: no. Many in the audience clapped loudly, stood, and cheered this revival (transferred from London and produced by Cameron Mackintosh). But watching this grandly designed and mounted Broadway show-first produced in London in 1989-especially in light of the fraught and charged debate around immigration and refugees, with its full retinue of racial stereotypes unchanged, is a bizarre confluence of opposites; like sunbathing on a bright sunny beach which is freezing cold, or drinking a banana milkshake and it tasting of garden weeds.
To be fair, the American figures are just as laughable and flat as their Vietnamese counterparts (let's not forget that Frenchmen wrote this and the British produced it). Les Misérables is also broad and melodramatic, but a better source and greater historical distance mitigates its sanctimonious patches. However, like Les Miz, Miss Saigon is ultimately stranded between extremes of cynicism and idealism: the Engineer's cartoonish hunger for American-style excess versus Kim's bland, maternal purity. What's lost in between is humanity or ambiguity, songs to tell us more about the characters' past, their quirks or inner nuances. Instead, stereotyped villains and victims shout-sing at each others' faces or collapse and bellow, "Nooooo!" (twice). Diversity on Broadway should be celebrated, but give actors of color characters we all can care about.