The behemoth national tour of the 2017 Tony nominated revival of MISS SAIGON has made its helicopter landing at Broadway in Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre, and every single production element is larger-than-life. Nothing about the staging nor the material of MISS SAIGON is subtle. Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil’s gargantuan pop opera (with lyrics by Boubil and Richard Maltby, Jr.) paints all of the plot points and characters in broad strokes, but the emotional tensions run big and true. Laurence Connor’s production aims to rectify some of the elements of the musical, which has a reputation as something of a “problem child” in the theater world. The original staging in 1989 was notorious for its use of “yellowface” (white actors playing Asian roles), particularly for the central role of the Engineer.
This production makes use of more appropriate casting, as well as the inclusion of some updated lyrics from Chicago’s Michael Mahler. This was my first viewing of MISS SAIGON. This production seems to highlight the strengths in the piece and mines it for emotional effect. Though the characters are broadly drawn, as is operatic convention, and the plot remains a mess, this MISS SAIGON has some real emotional heft.
While MISS SAIGON’s characters are far from developed, this production does powerfully showcase the atrocities and destruction that war can leave in its wake. Connor’s staging not only demonstrates how the Vietnam war affects the U.S. marines and the civilians of Saigon, but also the ways in which women were forced to sell their bodies. The Engineer’s bargirls are a prime example of this: Bob Avian’s choreography highlights the desperation these women feel in order to make ends meet. Andreane Neofitou’s costumes are dazzling, highlighting the sparkles and sequins of The Engineer’s strip club “Dreamland” but in other scenes, showcasing the immense poverty and destruction of the war. These tensions are personified in the role of Miss Saigon herself, Gigi. DePaul University graduate Christine Bunuan assumes this critical role; she portrays Gigi’s rough and tough exterior but also her character’s longing to transcend her circumstances in the beautiful “Movie in My Mind.” Her ensemble of fellow bar girls are similarly talented and deliver Schönberg and Boubil’s harmonies precisely.
Of course, at its core MISS SAIGON is the story of the star-crossed lovers Kim, a 17-year-old Vietnamese woman forced into employment at Dreamland, and the U.S. marine Chris, who comes to the club hoping to escape the devastation of the war. While these characters are underdeveloped and in many ways stereotypical, the tension between actors Emily Bautista and Anthony Festa feels real. Not only do they have believable chemistry, but they carry out the vocal Olympics their roles demand with ease. Bautista in particular commands the stage in every moment she appears. She has found all the layers in her character’s desperation and hopefulness, and she embodies Kim’s never-ending determination and willingness to sacrifice all that she has for what matters most. Bautista has one of her most haunting moments in the act one finale “I’d Give My Life for You,” which she makes a stunning anthem of survival and a demonstration of her vocal prowess.
As the evening’s emcee and Dreamland’s resident pimp, Red Concepción delivers a multi- layered and finely-crafted performance as the Engineer. Concepción finds that necessary balance between foreboding and winsome; we sometimes recoil at his presence and character choices, even as we deeply empathize with him. This is not an easy role, particularly as it falls on the Engineer to guide us as well through the sometimes-murky plot points of the musical, but Concepción delivers it all. His final solo number “American Dream” is nothing short of magnificent; it also doesn’t hurt that the show throws the full force of its production values at this number, too.
That brings me to one last critical point about this staging of MISS SAIGON: it’s not just a vocal spectacle, but out-and-out one of the most astounding visual spectacles I’ve ever seen on the stage. With Cameron Mackintosh at the helm, one can be assured there will be no skimping on production values. The show uses thousands of costumes and props and countless gargantuan set pieces, with the design concept by Adrian Vaux. MISS SAIGON is a consistent and gratifying experience in sensory overload, aided as well by Bruno Poet’s lighting design, Luke Hall’s projections, and Mick Potter’s sound design. The infamous helicopter makes an appearance in the show’s second act, and it is every bit as jaw-dropping as one might imagine.
Though MISS SAIGON is a messy and broadly drawn show, this production makes the most of the musical’s material. The narrative thread about the U.S. marines longing to return to America and the Vietnamese civilians who long to escape the atrocities of war and seek a better life there rings especially true to this moment. This production fully represents the strange paradoxes inherent in this show, from the contrast between the beautiful score and the often crude, quotidian lyrics to the countless visual pleasures contrasted with the dark, sad material. For those who are curious about this giant of a musical, MISS SAIGON is well worth a visit.
MISS SAIGON plays Broadway In Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre through December 8. Tickets are $35-$120. BroadwayInChicago.com
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy
Helicopter Photo: Matthew Murphy and Johan Persson