Miss Saigon, national tour Citizen’s Bank Opera House, Boston. [Through June 30. http://www.BroadwayinBoston.com]
By Jules Becker
The United States may be out of Vietnam for decades, but the issue of military intervention still resonates in the 1989 (Broadway, 1991) musical “Miss Saigon.” That resonance is so far-reaching that a similar impact could easily apply to America’s respective involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Boublil & Schonberg show’s disturbing if very entertaining national tour at the Opera House brings up the issue of US intervention again even as it movingly looks at the “Madame Butterfly”-inspired romance of American soldier Chris and Vietnamese young woman Kim.
Fans of the acclaimed musical (Olivier and Tony Awards) know very well that responsibility is as focal a part of it as the young lovers’ relationship. After all, Chris has a wife in the States, and fellow soldier John — who serves as a kind of conscience for his best friend — is trying to keep him grounded as a man. At the same time orphan Kim has lost her parents during the war itself. Eventually of course Chris will meet son Tam whom he fathered.
Behind the scenes but never far from the central plot is the always-maneuvering Engineer, ready to throw anyone under the proverbial bus to land a green card and thereby escape from the war and a pathway to a new life in America. This sleazy pleasure land impresario literally markets young women in Saigon and later young men as well in Bangkok. Tellingly in the show’s best number “The American Dream,” Engineer virtually makes love to the Cadillac that represents success in his conception of the good life. Over and above the grim reality of the Vietnam War is the unending struggle between unprincipled survival at all cost conmen like Engineer — could he be Trump’s favorite musical character? — and well-intentioned if sometimes dangerously clueless combatants like Chris.
Under Laurence Connor’s sharp direction, a largely forceful cast makes that struggle both poignant and powerful. Red Concepcion brings terrific energy and stylish slyness to the role of Engineer. His phrasing and stage movement on “The American Dream” take this showstopper rightly into vocal and visual overdrive. By contrast, he enriches the conman’s Saigon and Bangkok pimping with curiously dark insidiousness.
Emily Bautista has all of Kim’s sweetness and vulnerability. She delivers Kim’s foreshadowing first-act closer “I’d Give My Life for You” with heart-wrenching intensity. Anthony Festa matches Bautista’s vocal strength on romantic duos like “Sun and Moon” but needs to be more convincing conveying Chris’ emotional conflict about Kim and Ellen. J. Daughtry captures John’s caring and inner strength—particularly on “Bui Doi,” the Atlanta-set call for caring about adrift children of American and Vietnamese parentage.
The famed scenes retain all of their power. Choreographer Bob Avian fires up the 1978 Ho Chi Minh City march – complete with a flipping acrobatic trio. Bruno Poet’s striking lighting includes the garish neon red of Engineer’s businesses and the muted mysteriousness of the arrival and exit of the iconic American helicopter. Mick Potter’s all-enveloping sound design complements the evocation of the war.
Chris tellingly speaks of Vietnam as “a place of mystery I never once understood.” By contrast, the fine tour of “Miss Saigon” hauntingly calls for that understanding. By extension, so it goes for Baghdad and Kabul.