Melanie Mariko Tojio plays the role of Kim for Saturday matinees and Sunday evening performances. More than five years after its London premiere, “Miss Saigon” and its justly famous helicopter have finally made it to Los Angeles. Despite its high profile and strong sales, it ends up being more notable for its stagecraft and spectacle than for its music and lyrics.
Thanks to Nicholas Hytner’s fluid direction, strong central performances and a highly dramatic story, the show remains quite watchable throughout. But whatever excitement it generates is of the how-did-they-do-that variety.
One thing must be said for creators Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boublil: They are smart enough to adapt strong material. As a follow-up to “Les Miserables,” they created a new version of “Madame Butterfly,” Puccini’s great opera about a callous American sailor’s affair with a Japanese girl at the turn of the century.
Boublil and Schoenberg moved the action to the 1970s, and the location to Vietnam. They also made the American in question far more sympathetic than his operatic counterpart. Chris (Peter Lockyer) falls in love with a Vietnamese bar girl named Kim (Jennifer C. Paz) two weeks before the fall of Saigon. As the Americans evacuate, he is forced to leave without her.
Three years later she still is waiting for him and reassuring their son that Daddy will return. When he learns of her whereabouts he does indeed come back — but with his new American wife.
Boublil and Schoenberg’s major creation is the character of the Engineer (Kevin Gray). Pimp, street hustler and above all, survivor, he is determined to make his way to the United States. In the show’s most effective musical number, “The American Dream,” the Engineer shares his cynical yet oddly naive image of the USA and mockingly makes love to the hood of a Cadillac.
The fact that this number occurs in the last 20 minutes of the show, interrupting the Chris-Kim plot as it nears its climax, is emblematic of the show’s sloppy structure. The plot cries out for this sort of who-I-am-and-what-I-stand-for number early on. The fact the creators placed it at the end suggests they were more interested in having a big production number there than in finding the best way to tell the story.
That is still more true with the helicopter sequence, in which we watch the aircraft descend to the roof of the embassy, pick up the remaining soldiers and take off again. This episode is shown in flashback during act two, which confuses the plot but postpones the show’s oooh-ahhh moment as long as possible. Spectacle, in other words, comes before storytelling.
This misguided approach helps explain our lack of deep emotional involvement with the characters. The mediocre score is also a factor. When Kim and Chris fall instantly in love, they celebrate by singing an inane duet about a saxophone solo. Is it any surprise we don’t feel their passion for each other? Anotherproblem is the show’s sound system. The balances are way off; when the orchestra is playing loudly (at least one-third of the time), it is difficult to impossible to understand the singers’ words.
The production has its strengths as well. Under Hynter’s direction, the action never slows. Bob Avian’s choreography is often highly effective, and set designer John Napier shows admirable restraint in the early scenes and then really knocks us out later on — most notably with a colorful and cluttered Bangkok street scene.
The generally strong cast is headed by Paz, who gives Kim both delicacy and great inner strength. She also has a remarkably expressive singing voice. Gray is appropriately slimy as the Engineer; his performance is a bit one-note, but he really comes through during the big moments.
Lockyer as Chris, Tami Tappan as his American wife, Ellen, and Allen Hong as Kim’s spurned intended all perforn competently, but is it Keith Byron Kirk as Chris’ best friend, John, who really shines. His solo at the top of act two is a rather pedantic, let’s-state-our-theme-blatantly number, but he sells it so well that it becomes one of the show’s most electric sequences.
The renovated Ahmanson Theater (which reopens with this production) is a near-total success, the facility’s new interior, dominated by browns and golds, is warm and inviting.
The seats are arranged in an appealing crescent, and the balconies have been moved forward to bring the audience closer to the stage. The floral patterns on the seats look like something from your grandmother’s sofa. Too bad the lobby remains far too small and narrow.