“Miss Saigon” – Very Pretty, Very Problematic

Miss Saigon production photo by Johan Persson

By Kimberly Rau

The newly revamped production of the 1989 smash hit “Miss Saigon” kicked off its U.S. tour at PPAC this week, and while producer Cameron Macintosh has certainly given us a high-tech, shiny new show to look at, this dated story from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil does not stand up to today’s scrutiny.

Set in Vietnam starting in 1975, “Miss Saigon” is the story of a young woman named Kim, who resorts to prostitution after her village is burned to the ground and her family killed. Just 17, she meets the GI Chris on her first day at work for The Engineer, a seedy character who dreams of one day making it big exploiting American greed on American soil. The Engineer is desperate for a visa out of the country, and as such forces his working girls onto GIs who might marry them. His plan is to, ostensibly, pose as a family member and leave with them.

Enter Chris. He’s put off by the whorehouse but his friends insist: Let us buy you a girl. The Engineer pushes Kim off on him. Chris tries to refuse and gives her money to run away, Kim tries to take the money, the Engineer threatens her, so instead off she goes to unwillingly lose her virginity to a stranger. The two wake up in the morning, decide they’re in love, engage in a cultural marriage ceremony and then Chris is whisked out of Vietnam, leaving Kim alone.

She spends the next three years trying to find him. He spends a year mourning, then remarries and decides not to tell his new wife anything of his first wife. Of course, eventually he has to come clean when Kim and their son start looking for him. There’s a tragic, awkward reunion, Kim tries to give their son to Chris and his wife, and then, predictably, the only person who is punished for anything that happened is the only person who had no say in the whole thing to begin with (well there’s also a meddling ex who meets a well-deserved end, but he’s a minor character).

Add in a bunch of racist terms for Asians and a few utterances of the term “half breeds” and you’ve got a storyline that’s about as culturally sensitive as a brick wall.

To give credit where it is more than due, the lead actors are, across the board, incredibly talented and a true joy to listen to. Red Concepcion as The Engineer is just the right mix of funny, sleazy and perceptive. He grasps what no one else seems to – that people are people no matter where you go, and everyone seems to be motivated by money or sex. His character is completely terrible, but compelling, and Concepcion has the comic timing and vocal skills to carry it. His big number in Act 2, “The American Dream” is a showstopper. Emily Bautista as Kim has an out of this world voice. The actual music in the show is nothing special, but Bautista makes all of her numbers compelling and three-dimensional. Her character isn’t given much development, but Kim tugs at your heartstrings nonetheless. And Anthony Festa as the handsome Chris is gifted with an exceptional voice as well. His character, like the others, doesn’t go through much change, but Festa does a great job with what he’s been given.

The orchestra – yes, a real orchestra – sounds great under conductor Will Curry . And the production values are top-notch, down to a working helicopter in the second act. The set and lighting are also incredible. The new design concept is from Adrian Vaux, and while I am unfamiliar with the original production, I can say this one really is spectacular.

In a nutshell, this is a physically gorgeous show with incredibly talented actors. However, the majority of the musical numbers fall flat and the character development leaves something to be desired. The plot that almost reads like something out of a Penthouse letter also doesn’t help “Miss Saigon” much at all. If you’re a fan of the musical, you may want to check it out, but this isn’t a show I’d go see again. Which is a shame, because the visuals are lovely and the actors deserve to have their talent showcased.

“Miss Saigon” runs through Sunday, Sept. 30, at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St., Providence. Tickets start at $40 and may be obtained at the box office, online at www.ppacri.org, or by calling 401.421.2787.

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