THEATER REVIEW: “Miss Saigon” @ Playhouse Square by Laura Kennelly

Through Sun 2/17

Miss Saigon, that tale of war and woe, is back in Cleveland after all these years. The KeyBank Broadway Series musical, directed by Laurence Connor, offers a slightly reworked version of the first national tour that played here in 1992.

Although the show lacks a hummable score and relies too heavily on sung dialogue, it does succeed in adding a human face to the horror that was the Vietnam War. Its focus is on the fall of Saigon in 1975 when the Viet Cong took the city and the exodus of South Vietnamese troops and the U.S. military turned into panic-fueled chaos.

Miss Saigon begins shortly before that last day. It tells the love story of new-to-the-city orphan Kim (a winsome Emily Bautista) and a depressed and angry U. S. soldier Chris (Anthony Festa).

Their world is filled with other people — a stage full. There’s the stalwart John (a full-voiced and believable J. Daughtry), friend to Chris, many bar girls and patrons, and later, Chris’s wife Ellen (a too-quiet Stacie Bono).

Why are the wicked characters often the most interesting? (Don’t answer that.) In Miss Saigon, they are the Engineer (masterfully portrayed by Red Concepción), the heartless man  who lures Kim into his bar and brothel; there’s also Thuy (a nicely evil Jinwoo Jung), a Viet Cong soldier who knew Kim as a child and wants to take her “home.”

It’s in the Engineer’s bar that the virgin Kim meets Chris and they fall in love. Although Chris tries to take Kim with him to the States, he fails. When the story picks up three years later, the now-married Chris learns that he has a son (Tam) and he returns to see him. As in Madame Butterfly, the opera Miss Saigon is modeled on, the poor Asian girl decides to kill herself so Chris and his wife can take little Tam to the U.S. without the inconvenience of her existence. (How is that a gift when now everyone associated with this will forever feel guilty?)

Outstanding numbers include “Movie in My Mind” where “they kill like men, they die like boys” describes the hapless soldiers. Another touching moment takes place when the second act opens and it’s now 1978. Chris and his friend John attend a conference in Atlanta that presents a slide show picturing the Bui Doi, the children left behind in Vietnam who were rejected by both parents’ cultures. Harsh lyrics tell their story — “the dust of life, conceived in hell and born in strife, they are the living reminders of all the good we failed to do, we can’t forget, must not forget, that they are all our children too.”

While we are told that there are a few shifts in emphasis in this latest version of the musical in order to bring out the heroine’s Madame Butterfly connections, the lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil and the score by Claude-Michel Schönber seem fairly faithful to the original. Will Curry ably conducted the small orchestra tucked away in the pit. One new addition, an Asian flute, played by Mira Magrill, added a haunting and perfect touch.  Choreography by Bob Avian gave a suitably risqué atmosphere when needed (especially in the brothel scenes) and provided the top-notch ensemble plenty of chances to show that they were in great physical shape.

Updated graphics and special effects (despite a tiny opening night glitch) worked well to facilitate scene shifts. Yes, the famous helicopter rescue (maybe the most outstanding feature of the original show) no longer includes a “real” helicopter onstage, but the simulated version works within the context of the action. We see people trying to scale the wall and can feel their panic at being left to the mercy of the invading forces.

BOTTOM LINE: Overall, the show reminds us of other Cameron MacIntosh productions (such as Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables), especially its tried and true melodies (many pieces sounded like bits of the aforementioned musicals cobbled together). And of course, it also reinforces the idea that a woman is lost and helpless without a man to protect her. If you enjoy spectacle, dancing both snappy and sexy, and a sad love story, then this is your musical even if it does seem a bit dated today. (None of the men in this story would stand a chance in our #MeToo era.)

[Written by Laura Kennelly]

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