The chopper has landed. Attended by several controversies and the kind of media scrutiny that says more about the dearth of activity on Broadway that anything else, “Miss Saigon” has finally arrived in New York. That’s one giant step for Cameron Mackintosh, one very small step for the musical theater.
Big, ferocious and raw, frequently challenging whatever sense of propriety might remain in the tattered Broadway environs, “Miss Saigon” is in-your-face from start to finish, and it’s here to stay.
Certainly one reason for that is the show’s familiarity; it shadows the “Madama Butterfly” libretto created for Giacomo Puccini from John Luther Long’s novella (which had already been adapted once for the stage by David Belasco).
In that sense the story – of a Geisha who gives up everything for an American who loves and leaves – marks its fourth incarnation, this time as an operatic musical updated to the Vietnam era.
Chris (Willy Falk), a young Marine stationed in Saigon during the final days of the American presence, falls in love with Kim (Lea Salonga at most performances, Kam Cheng at some), a would-be prostitute.
They set up house together briefly, but Chris’ plan to take Kim back to the U.S. is foiled in the panic that accompanies the evacuation in April 1975. Unaware that Kim has borne him a son, Chris eventually marries an American.
Struggling to survive in a Bangkok sex parlor, Kim’s dream of a reunion is stoked by a Eurasian pimp known as The Engineer (Jonathan Pryce). Certain that Kim and her child are going to be his ticket to an American paradise, he orchestrates much of the action of the musical. Like its antecedents, it doesn’t end well.
With a fleeting, doomed romance at its core, “Miss Saigon’s” surefire, heart-tugging elements can be affecting. They’re further pumped up by a film, shown at the beginning of Act II, of a refugee camp for the Amerasian children condemned to the epithet “bui-doi,” the “dust of life.”
Nicholas Hytner’s staging isn’t seamless, but it is punctuated by designer John Napier with some bold strokes and technological gimicrakery that hold an audience rapt especially the noisy, smoky appearance of a helicopter (a variation of Napier’s design for the ascent of Old Deuteronomy in “Cats”) and later of a glittery, menacing Cadillac (straight out of “Grease”).
But Napier’s stage design is mostly harsh, broken up occasionally with kitsch, as in a towering golden statue of Ho Chi Minh or the neon-lit Bangkok scenes reminiscent of Robin Wagner’s rendering of the same milieu in “Chess.”
The show’s standout production number, “The American Dream,” is The Engineer’s nightmare vision of corruption and greed in the land of opportunity. In London, the scene fairly overflowed with meanness. Here, the focus, if not the words, seems to have softened; it now seems almost winningly nasty.
And Pryce, who has imbued The Engineer with a serpentine Mephistophelian mirth, knows how to crawl right under one’s skin and behind one’s eyes. By the time “The American Dream” rolls around, the mirth has begun to dissolve into edgy desperation as he literally makes love to that dazzling Cadillac,
Napier knows how to fill a stage better than he has done here. The sides and back of the stage are hung with white paper and bamboo blinds that are raised and lowered as needed.
Bob Avian has provided a few colorful dances; a mock-martial ballet around that statue of Ho is particularly effective.
Despite the business that transpires, one often has the sense of staring into an airplane hangar. Most of the settings highlight the vastness of the space, obliterating any sense of intimacy in a show that demands it.
The French-American score (composed by Claude-Michel Schonberg, written by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr.) echoes the more ordinary motifs of “Les Miz” but lacks the earlier show’s few insinuating melodies.
Some very good musical theater actors (notable Liz Callaway, who plays the wife, Ellen, and Hinton Battle, as Chris’ pal John) are condemned to sing some of the most banal lyrics this side of the supertitles at the New York City Opera.
Salonga is a persuasive, if not particularly memorable Kim, while Willy Falk’s Chris is flyweight. But the two are well-matched vocally and their duets have the pop appeal of a Carpenters ballad, particularly in the love song “Sun And Moon.”
The opening of “Miss Saigon,” in The Engineer’s Saigon brothel (a dive called, of course, Dreamland) is aggressively, purposefully sordid; it’s hard to recall another musical in which so many lyrics had to rhyme with ass, in which so many breasts and backsides were grabbed.
While the tone eases up somewhat as the show progresses, almost nothing of beauty or delight occurs in “Miss Saigon.”
Even the cynical comic moments offer little in the way of relief from an essentially grim sensibility. There’s no return on the emotional investment; in the end, there’s no profit in “Miss Saigon” – unless, of course, one is an investor.
It’s a Cameron Mackintosh presentation.