If you think the more things change the more they stay the same, you’ll have every reason to enjoy Broadway San Diego’s Miss Saigon, the 1989 megamusical that castigates the U.S. military’s involvement in a thoroughly unwinnable war half a world away.
It’s true that there’s something very Romeo and Juliet about the leads — as in Bill’s classic, they’re ill-fated young lovers caught up in a decades-long civil feud, and as in Bill’s classic, suicide does play a climactic role in their story.
But the years and the sociopolitical inventory that followed the Vietnam war have caught up with this piece, whose three 1991 Tony Awards pale against the reassessment of America’s role in the conflict. The greater the passage of time, the more racist this piece appears; and while it’s still the steamroller whose music and lights command utmost attention, it pummels its heroine until she’s nearly devoid of a character to play against.
This is a strange, out-of-touch, unconscionably maudlin entry whose 2017 revival plays to theatrics rather than theatricality.
The difference will become apparent momentarily.
The piece’s setting played out by the hundreds in postwar Vietnam: Chris Scott (Anthony Festa), a U.S. serviceman stationed in Saigon, fathers a boy by his teenage Vietnamese girlfriend Kim (Emily Bautista); in time, she learns her lover settled into marriage after America’s high-tail retreat.
Dad, it seems, can provide his son the tools for a better life in America — and on the day the latter’s due to leave, mom commits the unconscionable, a tragic footnote to one of the most unspeakably shameful periods in this nation’s history.
[The all-pervasive music] leaves Festa and Bautista to do what they do best — sing the lights out of the 28 tunes.
Miss Saigon does get a certain mileage out of its real-life foundation, which translated to 58,000 American deaths or disappearances between 1955 and 1973. And if you like music with your musicals, you’ll be glad to know there’s precious little dialogue to serve as a bridge to the tunes (the piece is almost an opera). This leaves Festa and Bautista to do what they do best — sing the lights out of the 28 tunes.
Listen to the hopeful reflection in “The Movie in My Mind” and the romantic imagery in “Sun and Moon” (“My hands still shake; I reach for you, and we meet in the sky!”).
But by God, this show is naggingly bipolar, to the point of racist overtone. With the virtual exception of Chris, all the guys are either brutish Viet Kong yes-men or beer-guzzling G.I. idiots. Almost except for Kim, all the girls are either bimboid hookers or the beer-guzzling G.I. idiots’ dupes.
Composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricists Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil likely conceived the show that way to give Chris and Kim the attention — and while that’s a logical approach, it sacrifices part the understory’s nonracial component, palpably missing in a cast this size.
Adrian Vaux’s design concepts mirror the music in their colossal impact — witness the fabled helicopter scene . . .
Kim’s bar-owner boss The Engineer, so called because he’s orchestrated a litany of shady schemes on the Asian black market, is the ideal complement to the corporate U.S. mentality that built empires while thousands died — and actor Red Concepción takes advantage of the superb technical effort to get that across. His is a great performance in a fair piece as he wheedles his presence like any outstanding villain.
For all his bravado, Chris holds fast to decency and introspection where Kim is concerned — thanks to the actors, the pair’s souls are patently untenable together, chiefly because the war-weary Kim can no longer function as her own person.
Festa is an exceedingly solid first tenor who has excellent control in his lower register, and amid the stamina behind her soaring soprano, Bautista may as well run marathons for a living. Hell, maybe she already does.
Director Laurence Connor, choreographer Bob Avian’s dancers and Will Curry’s brilliant orchestra have all they can handle in the face of Schönberg‘s score, which twists and turns beautifully on a dime. Adrian Vaux’s design concepts mirror the music in their colossal impact — witness the fabled helicopter scene that marked the real-life U.S. pullout, the heart-stopping choreographic nod to North Vietnamese President Hồ Chí Minh and the number “Bui Doi,” the thoroughly touching tribute to Vietnam’s Amerasian children, those fathered by American servicemen and native moms (“the living reminders of all we failed to do”).
It took decades, but this nation finally (and, in some quarters, quite begrudgingly) acknowledges the mortal sin of its involvement in Southeast Asia. Not only did Washington direct the shots from halfway around the globe; it had absolutely no call injecting the country in a civil flap wherein the so-called enemy was eons superior in the ways of topographical warfare.
The French, whose ill-fated Indochinese rule ended in 1954 after eight years, tried to warn us — and as usual, we didn’t listen. We not only lost the war; we were never in the game.
Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving administration. Way to be, Dick. We’re literally forever in your debt.
Today, with race and immigration such dominant issues at home, Miss Saigon looks less like escapist fare and more like a re-enactment of the evening news. Yes, theater is a moral repository whose checks and balances echo those within the public debate — but there are absolutes that performance art crosses at its peril lest it assume a caricaturist perspective. Broadway San Diego’s latest mount, even as it dazzles and moves to distraction, proves the point.
This review is based on the media-night performance of July 10. Miss Saigon runs through July 14 at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave. downtown. $78-$499. broadwaysd.com, 619-564-3000.