Inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s massively influential Madame Butterfly, Boublil and Schönberg’s equally successful Miss Saigon originally premiered in 1989 in London’s West End. It would prove to be an international hit, becoming Broadway’s 13th longest running show, and serves as a watershed moment in the modern musical theater canon. It is a grand, operatic tragedy that retains the heart of Puccini’s story of a woman’s ultimate sacrifice for the sake of her child and, on the heels of the 2017 Broadway revival, is receiving a handsome national tour; it’s now at the Cadillac Palace Theatre until December 8.
Transposing Butterfly‘s original action from turn of the century Japan to Vietnam in 1975, Miss Saigon tells the sweeping tale of Kim (Emily Bautista), a young woman from the countryside who, orphaned and caught up in the conflict, is sent to work in a brothel in the besieged city just days before the end of the war. The brothel, called Dreamland, is owned by the Engineer (Red Concepción), a flamboyant and sleazy opportunist who sees Kim’s potential–she’s pastoral and virginal, and he knows she could capture the heart of a G.I. and perhaps he can swindle an American visa for himself.
Enter Marine Chris Scott (Anthony Festa); he’s at the end of his tour, disillusioned and shell-shocked, and finds himself under Kim’s spell. After they share a night in the throes of passion in a rented room, Chris is convinced she is the only good thing to have come from the entire war, and Kim believes he can save her from a horrific past. Promises are made, but ultimately broken when Chris leaves Saigon without Kim. He begins a new life in Atlanta while she flees with the Engineer to Bangkok, along with her son Tam (unwittingly fathered by Chris). When he learns that Kim is still alive and caring for their son alone, Chris and his wife Ellen (Stacie Bono) travel to Bangkok, igniting the spark that leads to Miss Saigon‘s tragic, fatalistic finale.
This is a massive show, requiring densely populated depictions of historical iconography (the balletic, chaotic storming of the American embassy ending in the famous helicopter escape, a reunification parade, filled with dragons and flags and a towering bust of Ho Chi Minh, and the seedy, seductive streets of Bangkok’s pleasure district are evocative highlights). The production contains some striking images of original design, such as Act 1’s final tableau: the Engineer, Kim and Tam, dwarfed on the expanse of an empty, fog-laden stage, lit all red and yellow and orange, on the precipice of a new life.
The score, one of Boublil and Schönberg’s most enduring, is as epic and lush as the story would suggest; the cast here presents a powerfully sung interpretation, particularly in the lavish and erotic full-company numbers. Red Concepción is delicious as the shameless Engineer (his showstopping “The American Dream” is a real crowd-pleaser). Anthony Festa exudes the ennui and struggle of Chris from the moment he is spotted in Dreamland. And Emily Bautista as Kim, our determined, fated heroine, delivers a devastating, empathic performance, beautiful and heartbreaking and hopeful. The influence of traditional opera is felt in the score’s sophisticated and nuanced development; it can be, sometimes, a tad impenetrable and I found myself wishing for a few more melodic landmarks to navigate the narrative complexity. But even so, Miss Saigon remains a monumental composition that has aged with grace, and deserves to be experienced with live voices and orchestra.
Upon returning home from the war, U.S. soldiers were greeted by a nation ashamed of their own sons, and a dismissive society ambivalent to veterans’ lasting physical and psychic trauma. Vietnam was a country torn apart by civil war and foreign intervention, left to pick up the pieces of death and devastation for the decades that followed. The story of Kim and Chris, their love, their plans, and the eventual destruction of their shared dream mimics the conflict at large, and plays like a bloodsoaked cautionary tale on a personal and national level.
As our two countries have grieved and slowly come to terms with the horrorshow of our shared past, renewed historical interest in the war has allowed discussion and dissection of the political and societal fallout to finally emerge. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s excellent and brutal The Vietnam War is triumphant in that way, and I was reminded of the documentary while watching this new production of Miss Saigon: in its scale, in its boldly struck images of carnage and human suffering, in its sublime soundscape: a reminder of our shared mortality, and a battle-cry in the name of compassion and sacrifice and the humanist’s hope of a world without the hell of war.
Watching this play so close to Veterans Day, I would feel remiss and irresponsible not to acknowledge the brave men and women of our country’s armed forces, many of whom have experienced the very nightmare depicted here. Thank you for your service.