Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s Miss Saigon has taken its second helicopter ride across the Atlantic from London, and landed right back at the Broadway Theatre, where it first set down in 1991 under heavy enemy fire. The anti-aircraft artillery at that time came not from the Viet Cong, as would befit an epic musical set in the final days of the Vietnam War, but from Actors Equity and the Asian-American community, who objected to the casting of a white actor (Jonathan Price) in a Eurasian role. Cameron Mackintosh, the show’s producer then and now, threatened at the time to abort the mission, but after coming to terms, he managed to land his imported mega-musical safely, with all hands on board, where it afterward hovered over Broadway for ten successful years. It also enjoyed a 10-year run at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London, and has been performed in 28 countries in 15 different languages, so the reason for its re-appearance right now isn’t readily apparent. To heck with that pesky Immigration controversy that is now confronting the nation, the big chopper is back, blowing up dust in a ramped-up new production directed by the talented Laurence Connor. The casting of Jon Jon Briones, a Filipino chorus member of the original London production, as The Engineer, a role more or less made infamous by Jonathan Pryce, has quieted the casting issues, and in the title role that launched the amazing Lea Salonga’s career, the young newcomer Eva Noblezada is simply sensational as Kim, the war-orphaned teenager who winds up working for The Engineer in his garish Saigon den of vice, Dreamland.
The story is loosely based on Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly, with the setting transposed to 1975 Saigon on the eve of the American evacuation from Vietnam. While the tragic love sequence in both remains identical (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl has little boy), dropping the action into the wild context of Saigon in the last days of the Vietnam War allows the show’s creative team to swirl a cynical mist around the immigrant dream of coming to America, with a vision of the real American dream as something bloated and empty. From its viewpoint on the ground in Southeast Asia, America is depicted in Miss Saigon as the departing imperial force heedless of the collateral carnage it has left behind in its wake. The famous Act Two helicopter is an apt, if gaudy, symbol for that; the same could be said of the male protagonist, a young U.S. Marine, Chris (Alistair Brammer), who is forced to abandon his (even younger) Vietnamese sex-shop bride Kim without knowing what will become of her, or even that he has fathered a child with her. Like Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Chris later returns to Asia (with his wife) to reclaim his son, and just as in Butterfly, well, let’s just say you won’t need night-goggles to see the helipad coming.
Nevertheless, the story packs an unavoidable emotional punch, even if you do see it coming, largely due to the performance of Ms. Noblezada. She is so entirely connected to her character, to Kim’s grit and resolve, and to her youthful love for Chris and for her son, that she carries you along with her, just as she carries the soaring ballads and anthems the score asks her to deliver throughout the show. She simply nails all of it, and there is little question that this new production of Miss Saigon has produced yet another bona-fide star. Jon Jon Briones is doubtless giving the best performance of his long career, and he seems to be enjoying every nanosecond of it. His performance is a creepy treat, from start to finish, chock-full of details and nuance, totally in control, even when things get out of control. He delivers the big production numbers with mad aplomb, especially the over-the-top eleven o’clock number, “The American Dream,” in which he competes for attention with the entrance of a gigantic Statue of Liberty, which regurgitates an enormous white vintage Cadillac that is even longer than the line at the ladies room at intermission.
The large cast is uniformly excellent, and given the epic scope of the production the efforts of the versatile ensemble are nothing short of Herculean. Alistair Brammer is a bit stiff physically, but he more than makes up for that with sincerity and an excellent singing voice, and stand-outs in the main supporting roles include a solid Nicholas Christopher (John) and Devin Ilaw (Thuy), who sets a very high bar, vocally, for the rest of the cast. The design elements are appropriately impressive, propelling the story along to its inevitable conclusion, with protean sets by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, based on a design concept by Adrian Vaux; lights by Bruno Poet, and costumes by Andreane Neofitou. Bob Avian’s musical staging, with additional choreography by Geoffrey Garratt, is seamless, in the commercial Broadway sense, inseparable from Mr. Connor’s staging and masterful in its own right. The pop-rock score, by Claude-Michel Schonberg, is sometimes tepid and often repetitive, but when it has to soar it does so, usually on the wings of Eva Noblezada’s beautiful soprano voice.
This production, while dated, is not without tooth, and at its best moments, usually in its big production numbers, it can still deliver plenty of bite. But the larger problem is that the world has changed since 1991; today’s reality places Miss Saigon, with its lurid immigration nightmare of a crass, hollow American dream not really worth having, oddly out of context with a world in which millions of refugees are desperately seeking shelter in an America that is now officially seeking to ban them.
Miss Saigon, Book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg; Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil, with additional lyrics by Michael Mahler. Produced by Cameron Mackintosh, Directed by Laurence Connor. Musical staging by Bob Avian; Additional choreography by Geoffrey Garratt; Sound design by Mick Potter; projections by Luke Halls, orchestrations by William David Brohn; musical supervision by Stephen Brooker, musical direction by James Moore, casting by Tara Rubin Casting/Merri Sugarman CSA.
Cast: Jon Jon Briones, Eva Noblezada, Lianah Sta. Ana (at certain performances), Alistair Brammer, Rachelle Ann Go, Katie Rose Clarke, Nicholas Christopher, Devin Ilaw, Carol Angeli, Emily Bautista, Mike Baerga, Billy Bustamante, Viveca Chow, Julian DeGuzman, Colby Dezelick, Taurean Everett, Paige Faure, Graham Scott Fleming, Casey Garvin, Nkrumah Gatling, Dan Horn, Ericka Hunter, Adam Kaokept, Lina Lee, Paul HeeSang Miller, Robert Pendilla, Catherine Ricafort, Casey Lee Ross, Jason Sermonia, Julius Sermonia, Antoine L. Smith, Sam Strasfeld, Tiffany Toh, Kimberly-Ann Truong, Kei Tsuruharatani, Christopher Vo, Travis Ward-Osborne, Charlie Williams, Anna-Lee Wright, Warren Yang, Gregory Ye and Minami Yusui.
Runtime: 2 hrs 40 min. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, at 53rd. 212-239-6200.