New production on national tour now at the Fox Theatre
By Joe Gfaller
“Miss Saigon” holds a powerful mirror up both to its own complicated history and to the dangers of the American Dream in a newly resonant production, the current national tour now playing at the Fox Theatre through May 5.
It’s been 30 years since this musical by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (best known for “Les Misérables”) first opened in the West End in London.
Based on Puccini’s iconic opera “Madame Butterfly,” it played for nearly ten years on Broadway, creating the very definition of the “mega-musical.” That reputation of success looms large for anyone seeing it today, as does the musical’s deeply problematic reputation around race, identity, and victimization.
The current tour, based on the show’s recent West End and Broadway revivals, faces many of the story’s complex and devastating issues head on. Even with its powerful, nuanced performances and dazzling effects, it cannot fully escape the problems inherent in the story itself. However, in the many moments when it does, it is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.
In this new version, one message is clear: the myth of the American dream is toxic. It damns each of the characters it touches.
For the Engineer, played with equal parts giddy enthusiasm and depraved desperation by Red Concepción, it is a canker that only grows more obsessive and pathetic as the musical unfolds. By the time he reaches his show-stopping reflection on his American dream, his obsession with America has transformed into sinister self-hatred.
Kim, given a heartfelt performance from Emily Bautista, is first surrounded by the promise of America in the aptly-named Dreamland club. There, each of her fellow dancers hope that the G.I.s who bed them will ultimately free them from what looks to be an unending cycle of human trafficking and violence.
However, from the moment Gigi is slapped by a G.I. for even speaking of marriage, it is clear that these dreams are nothing more than an unattainable fairy tale, told to give the women a reason to continue selling their bodies to the highest bidder.
Chris, an American G.I., thinks he embodies the American dream, and watching that “white savior” belief system crumble throughout Anthony Festa’s performance is devastating.
Unlike Madame Butterfly’s B.F. Pinkerton (upon whom Chris’s character is based), this is a man who starts off as neither callous nor selfish. In sharp contrast to the other men at Dreamland, he isn’t a leering, oversexed predator. He only takes Kim — still virginal and visibly uncomfortable on her first night there after escaping the destruction of her village — because his friend John has paid for her already.
He reflects later in the show, “I wanted to save and protect her. Christ, I’m an American, how could I fail to do good?” In Festa’s performance, the man we see years later in America is haunted by his PTSD, by the memories of what he saw, and by all the good he failed to do. It is a transformation that is chilling and deeply humane.
Discovering the lethal consequences of his own fear, internalized bias, and white fragility, Festa echoes a cry of anguish to close this production that cuts like a knife through the audience – severing us, for a moment, from the myth of the American dream as well.
Part of the reason that Bautista and Festa’s final reunion has such an impact is the electric sincerity of their initial love. In “Sun and Moon,” the two fall from full-throated harmony directly into a passionate embrace with a palpable chemistry.
As Saigon falls to the Communists and Kim and Chris desperately search for one another in a sequence of stunning cinematic scope, that chemistry seems to draw them inexorably together – making us believe against all reason that, yes, they will find one another.
It is in Kim’s journey which follows without Chris, however, that Bautista truly shines. Whereas the shadow of Vietnam seems to have slowly emasculated Chris after Saigon falls, for Kim, living with the consequences of those days together only makes her stronger. Her transformation from a vulnerable girl in a whirlwind romance to a steadfast mother is sensitive, nuanced, and riveting.
In the moment when Bautista pulls the trigger to prevent a man from killing her son for not being pure-blooded Vietnamese, we see a drive and iron will that is as tangible as the longing we feel in hearing her sing Miss Saigon’s signature anthem “I Still Believe.” By the time she has become a refugee in Thailand, there is not a choice she makes that does not feel deeply grounded in that drive, that love, and that longing.
The rest of the cast shines throughout. As John, J. Daughtry transforms wartime cynicism into peacetime sincerity. He pleads for the children left behind in “Bui Doi” with a simple clarion tone that stands apart from the otherwise intense and ballad-heavy score.
As Thuy, the man Kim had been promised to in her village, Jimwoo Jung is a powerful force – both in the flesh and as a ghost – with the strident moral rectitude of the post-war “re-educated” that reminds one of Les Misérables’s Javert. One imagines he would give an extraordinary turn in that role as well.
If Kim is Miss Saigon’s Fantine, Gigi is the show’s Eponine. (Les Misérables comparisons are rife and unfortunately unavoidable). Christine Bunuan gives Gigi a veneer of earthy stoicism, which buries most glimmers of hope, which is beautifully articulated in “The Movie in My Mind.” Given her performance, it’s hard not to wish Gigi’s story continued after the first few scenes.
In one of this production’s most engaging surprises, thanks to Stacie Bono’s controlled performance, Ellen, the woman Chris married in America, truly comes into her own.
Thanks to Bono’s confrontation with Bautista’s Kim in a Bangkok hotel room — and the addition of her new song “Maybe” in this revival, we see a complex portrait of a woman who can be at times harsh or vulnerable, but who is open to discovering her own capacity to love and forgive.
Whether in sharply choreographed sequences or more intentionally chaotic crowd scenes, the entire ensemble creates a dynamic world against which this deeply personal story plays out.
Bob Avian (musical staging) and Geoffrey Garratt (additional choreography) should both be applauded for one of the production’s most stunning numbers, “The Morning of the Dragon,” in which the three-year anniversary of Vietnamese unification under Ho Chi Minh is celebrated. The back flips, tumbles, and other high flying acrobatics of Daniel Gold, Noah Gouldsmith, McKinley Knuckle, and Kevin Murakami are simply stellar.
The design elements knit together coherently as well. Bruno Poet’s lighting design jumps from garish neon to narrow slivers peeking through broken wooden slats in a shanty town, all to create an atmosphere that transports us. Andreane Neofitou’s costumes do not shy from the grime of Kim’s poverty but also explode in lush opulence for The Engineer’s fantasy production number. The set, designed presumably by production designers Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, uses several of the same simple units that are almost unrecognizable scene-by-scene as the action moves across time and space.
And yes, there is a helicopter. From sound (by Mick Potter), to projections (by Luke Halls), to lighting, to moving set elements, this production handles Miss Saigon’s defining moment in a way that is surprising and riveting, leaving Wednesday night’s audience in a state of on-going rolling applause.
The creators of the musical are also to be applauded for the work they’ve done to update the material from the original version millions have seen since 1989. I am not expert in that version, but it is clear efforts have been made to address some of the script’s most problematic elements.
Purists may be troubled by the alterations, but at least no longer is a night with a Vietnamese woman compared to the price of a Big Mac – a lyric that was unarguably degrading.
Just as the recent “South Pacific” revival was revised to examine Nellie Forbush’s received racism in a more honest way and the current “Kiss Me, Kate” revival replaces some of its period misogyny and sexism with a more complex look at power in human relationships, so too does “Miss Saigon” need these revisions for the 21st century. One could argue that it could benefit from even more.
So, yes, this production deserves a great deal of justified praise. However, the material still suffers from the very orientalism that created its predecessor opera, “Madame Butterfly.”
However noble Miss Saigon’s Kim is (and however much agency she attempts to stake for herself), she still spends most of the show suffering the consequences of decisions made by men: be it the Engineer, Chris, or Thuy. As much as one can blame the canker of self-hatred infecting the Engineer when he sings “Why was I born of a race that thinks only of rice,” destructive stereotypes still fill the show.
This production earnestly attempts to address those stereotypes when it can, but to eliminate them completely would require starting from scratch with a new musical. One could only imagine that this same material could have been written with a higher level of nuance had the writing and producing team consisted entirely, or even partly, of Asian artists back in 1989.
The cast itself features an ensemble that balances artists who are of Asian descent with those who are Latinx, African-American, and white. To produce the show without two entirely separate ensembles (one Asian, to play ensemble characters from Vietnam and Thailand, and one largely non-Asian for the American ensemble), white actors and dancers appear in the Vietnamese army after the fall of Saigon. No “complexion enhancing make up” (the polite term now for “yellowface”) is applied to these white performers for those scenes. However, make up or not, white performers in Asian roles is still considered yellowface to many. Absent exploding the cost of producing the musical by hiring an even larger cast, there may be few practical ways to address this issue.
Nonetheless, I can appreciate the discomfort that many may feel when looking at representation in casting in the production. (These and other questions recently became a flashpoint for controversy when this tour of Miss Saigon played in Madison, Wisc.)
That said, the “Miss Saigon” that exists is the “Miss Saigon” we have.
As this production begins, we see Saigon’s streets through the haze of a scrim. That hazy vision becomes a metaphor for the very nature of the musical’s storytelling. The people who wrote “Miss Saigon” could only see it through their own, perhaps biased, lens. They did their best to create a powerful evening of theater despite the limitations of their own experience. This production has clearly worked hard to mitigate those limitations.
We can embrace director Laurence Connor’s storytelling for allowing the staging and nuanced characterizations to help us sympathize with all of the characters, even when they are far from likeable people. We can applaud music director Will Curry’s strong work with the orchestra and his cast to let the music soar and transport us. And we can look to the talents of this remarkable ensemble and appreciate the power, beauty, and heartbreak of the journey they take us on.
At the top of the second act, the production shows documentary footage of the half-Vietnamese, half-American children left behind after the war. When it is at its best, the production gives us moments like these that do not rely on the musical’s lyrics to point to the musical’s underlying story. For despite the fantasy and romance at the surface of “Miss Saigon,” it remains grounded in the harsh reality of our very recent history.
As refugees continue to cross borders to find a better life for their children, as sex trafficking continues among the most vulnerable of us, and as toxic masculinity threatens the welfare of women worldwide, that history continues today – sometimes in our own backyards. Despite its flaws, for that reason (and for the talents of the artists involved), I say that this “Miss Saigon” is a production that should be seen – and discussed for a long time to come.
The Fox Theatre in St. Louis is presenting “Miss Saigon” now through May 5. For tickets or more information, visit www.fabulousfox.com or call MetroTix at 314-534-1111.