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Review: ‘Miss Saigon’ still thrills despite problematic story

Anthony Festa as Chris and Emily Bautista as Kim share a kiss in a scene from the North American tour of “Miss Saigon.” The musical continues at the First Interstate Center for the Arts through Sunday. (Matthew Murphy)
Anthony Festa as Chris and Emily Bautista as Kim share a kiss in a scene from the North American tour of “Miss Saigon.” The musical continues at the First Interstate Center for the Arts through Sunday. (Matthew Murphy)

The spectacle of “Miss Saigon” is still spectacular. The tragedy is still tragic. And a show that has been controversial since its debut 30 years ago remains problematic despite excellent staging and performances from a talented cast.

Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil followed up their massive hit “Les Miserables” with another adaptation. This time, they took Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera “Madame Butterfly” and reimagined Imperial Japan as war-torn Vietnam.

“Miss Saigon” centers on Kim, a South Vietnamese teenager who flees her village after it is firebombed and her parents are killed. She ends up in Saigon, where she meets the Engineer, a pimp and club host who hires her for his bar. There she is offered to the American G.I.s who hang out at the club. She meets Chris, and they fall in love.

Unfortunately for our young lovers, Saigon is about to fall. When it does, Chris leaves with the last of the American forces, leaving a pregnant Kim behind. Three years later, she is supporting their son as a dancer in Bangkok. Meanwhile, Chris has married back home, and when he comes in search of Kim and his son, tragedy befalls them.

Like “Les Mis,” “Miss Saigon” feels epic. The songs soar, the emotions are huge. And the spectacle! Whether it’s a rather vivid portrayal of a Bangkok strip club, circa 1978, or the Engineer’s capitalist American fever dream, or the evacuation of the American Embassy in Saigon staged with a full-scale helicopter, it’s a larger-than-life theatrical experience.

As Kim, Emily Bautista turns in a heartfelt and beautiful performance. Her singing is lovely, and her duet with Chris (Anthony Festa) in “Sun and Moon” is an early highlight. Later, when we first meet her son Tam (played Wednesday by Adalynn Ng), the child runs into her arms and they embrace, and Bautista is utterly believable as a mother who deeply loves her child and will do anything to protect him.

When Tam’s life is threatened by Thuy (Jinwoo Jung), a man from her village who now is a North Vietnamese commander, Kim does what she has to do, and it is a heartbreaking scene.

As Chris, Festa brings an earnestness and a nice singing voice to the role. He spends much of “Miss Saigon” conflicted – conflicted by the war he hates, the girl he loves and the life he makes for himself once home. Festa and Bautista have good chemistry, which shows in their frequent onstage kisses and embraces.

The flashiest role by far is that of the Engineer, and Red Concepción takes full advantage. His Engineer is lewd, devious, funny and greedy, with his eye on the prize: a ticket to America. He leads the opening number, “The Heat Is On,” and stars in the second-act showstopper, “American Dream,” complete with Las Vegas showgirls and a Cadillac onstage.

It’s in this number, though, where “Miss Saigon” finally lost me. As entertaining as it was, it ruins the flow of the narrative. Moments before, Kim learns a piece of devastating news, and we follow that up with … a Las Vegas dance number? Then to segue from an orgy of capitalism to the heartbreaking final number, Kim’s “Little God of My Heart” is whiplash-inducing.

It’s among the many questionable choices the show’s creators made. Yes, they made amends for their gross error of initially casting white actors for Asian roles by making sure the casting is more ethnically realistic, but its portrayal of women is frankly appalling.

Most of the time, the show’s talented female ensemble is in stripper attire. So just as American G.I.s during the war objectified Vietnamese bar girls, we in the audience are asked to do it again. One could argue that the staging reflects the “reality” of life for these women. That may be. But since when are musicals representative of reality? Is real life sung through?

The only woman in the show who is not a sex worker is Chris’ American wife. And, sadly, her biggest job in the show is to break Kim’s heart. Kim is a strong woman who makes tough choices to help her son, but she’s also a character whose entire purpose is to be saved by someone. So she’s not strong enough.

And elevating the Engineer as a main character is a head-scratcher. He’s a low-life, a pimp, a cockroach who will say and do anything to survive – hardly the type of character to hang a show on.

I can understand why some Vietnamese people are unhappy that “Miss Saigon” is their culture’s only representation in the musical theater. It’s a show that boils down their story to one of pimps, whores and soldiers. I’ve never been to Vietnam, but I know its story is eminently more complicated and interesting than that.

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