As critic Clive Barnes recently pointed out, the time when producers could afford to let long runs go flabby in the casting and stage management have long since gone the way of the $15 orchestra seat. Hit musicals today are bigger than many corporations and typically better managed, and it’s no surprise to find “Miss Saigon” humming along like the well-oiled machine that it is.
Neither time nor repeated exposure have softened my view of “Miss Saigon” as one of the baser and more cynically exploitative musicals of our time, a girlie show with a phony conscience. After more than three years, however, audience appetite for the “Madame Butterfly” update remains indisputably strong, with the show regularly drawing crowds of 90% capacity or more to the Broadway Theatre and grossing well over the $ 500,000 mark — while the controversies that accompanied the show from London to New York (along with a record $ 32 million advance) now seem a distant memory.
This is a show that operates simultaneously on a massive and intimate scale — in terms of both Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Richard Maltby Jr.’s mock operatic score and John Napier’s production design, which shifts effortlessly from a towering colossus of Ho Chi Minh and the neon-brilliant clamor of Bangkok to the sad cramped spaces in which the show’s heroine spends most of her life.
What a distance director Nicholas Hytner traversed between “Miss Saigon” and his smashing “Carousel” staging, yet in both he shows a great gift for negotiating those big mood swings with as much swaggering confidence as Hal Prince and Trevor Nunn.
The current company boasts two hits and one miss among the three principals — which was pretty much true on opening night, as well. Rona Figueroa brings considerable depth to the role of Kim, and her theater voice hasn’t yet been wrecked by the pop vocalizing these musicals typically demand. Raul Aranas presents the Engineer less as the mythic portrait of a depraved opportunist than as a sniveling second-rater desperately in search of a route out of misery, and it’s an assured, believable performance. I don’t know if anyone could play Chris well, but Eric Kunze is all posturing and histrionics, and he had pitch problems the night reviewed.
Keith Byron Kirk (John), Yancy Arias (Thuy) and Tami Tappan (Ellen) are fine in the breathless caricatures that pass as their roles. (Emy Baysic, not seen, plays Kim at Wednesday and Saturday matinees and Thursday evenings.)