REVIEW: "Miss Saigon" — Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa
Updated: Oct 5, 2019
With a fleeting, doomed romance at its core,
“Miss Saigon’s” heart-tugging elements can be affecting.
“Miss Saigon” is a musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, with lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr. It is based on Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly, and similarly tells the tragic tale of a doomed romance involving an Asian woman abandoned by her American lover.
The setting of the plot is relocated to 1970s Saigon during the Vietnam War, and Madame Butterfly's story of marriage between an American lieutenant and a geisha is replaced by a romance between a United States Marine and a seventeen-year-old South Vietnamese bargirl.
After a ten year run in London, the musical opened on Broadway in 1991 for yet another ten year run, reaping eleven Tony nominations, winning three, and also winning four Drama Desk Awards and a Theatre World Award. “Miss Saigon” is currently listed as the 13th longest-running Broadway musical in musical theatre history. Presently on tour, the legendary musical comes to the stage in a striking new production at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, playing October 1st through 13th.
Big, ferocious and raw, “Miss Saigon” is in-your-face from start to finish. Even the cynical comic moments offer little in the way of relief from an essentially grim sensibility. The opening of “Miss Saigon,” is aggressively, purposefully sordid; it’s hard to recall another musical in which so many breasts and backsides were grabbed. Chris (Anthony Festa), a young Marine stationed in Saigon during the final days of the American presence, falls in love with Kim (Emily Bautista at this and most performances, Myra Molloy at some), a would-be prostitute. Struggling to survive in a Bangkok sex parlor called Dreamland, and with a fleeting, doomed romance at its core, “Miss Saigon’s” surefire, heart-tugging elements can be affecting.
The musical is gripping entertainment of old school style (specifically, the Rodgers and Hammerstein East-meets-West school of "South Pacific" and "The King and I"). Among other pleasures, it offers lush melodies, rousing interludes, spectacular performances by Red Concepcion, Emily Bautista, J. Daughtry and Anthony Festa, along with a good cry. Nor are its achievements divorced from its traumatic subject, as one might think. Without imparting one fresh or daring thought about the Vietnam War, the show still manages to plunge the audience back into the quagmire of a conflict generations ago, stirring up feelings of anguish and rage that still run deep.
But without the two theatrical impresarios, David Belasco and Harold Prince, there would be no "Miss Saigon." It was Belasco's turn-of-the-century dramatization of the Madame Butterfly story that inspired Puccini's opera, and it was Mr. Prince who, inspired by Brecht and the actor Joel Grey, created the demonic Emcee of "Cabaret," a character that is unofficially recycled on this occasion in a role called “The Engineer,” and played ingeniously by Mr. Concepcion. These two influences are brilliantly fused here.
Altered substantially but not beyond recognition, the basic "Butterfly" premise of an Asian woman who is seduced and abandoned by an American military man is affectingly rekindled in "Miss Saigon" by Mr. Schonberg's score and Ms. Bautista’s clarion, emotionally naked delivery of it. And, whenever that tale flirts with bathos, along comes the leering, creepy Engineer to jolt the evening back into the hellish, last-night-of-the-world atmosphere that is as fitting for the fall of Saigon as it was for the Weimar Berlin of "Cabaret."
The theatrical poles of "Miss Saigon" represented by its two stars are equally powerful. They are well-matched vocally and their duets have the pop appeal of a Carpenters ballad, particularly in the love song “Sun and Moon.”
Emily Bautista, in an enormous performance, has the audience all but worshiping her from her first appearance as Kim, an open-faced 17-year-old waif from the blasted Vietnamese countryside who is reduced to working as a prostitute in Saigon. As her romance with an American marine, Chris (Mr. Festa), blossoms "South Pacific"-style in a progression of haunting saxophone-flecked ballads in Act I, the actress keeps sentimentality at bay by slowly revealing the steely determination beneath the gorgeous voice, radiant girlish features and virginal white ao dai, split at both sides.
Once Chris and his fellow Americans have fled her and her country, that determination transmutes into courage, and the passages in which Kim sacrifices herself for the welfare of her young son are irresistibly moving because Ms. Bautista’s purity of expression, backed up by the orchestrational grandeur of the most austere, mesmerizing music and lyrics, simply won't let them be otherwise.
Mr. Concepcion, who has imbued his electrifying Engineer with a serpentine Mephistophelian mirth, knows how to crawl right under one’s skin and behind one’s eyes. His Engineer is a fixer, profiteer and survivor who can outlast both Uncle Sam and Uncle Ho: a pimp, a sewer rat, a hustler of no fixed morality, sexuality, race, nationality or language. Wearing bright colored jackets and bell bottoms of garish color, he is the epitome of sleaze, forever swiveling his hips, flashing a sloppy tongue and fluttering his grasping fingers in the direction of someone's dollar bills or sex organs.
With his bawdy demeanor and lurid eyes, Mr. Concepcion plays the specter of doom, and he manages to turn a knee-jerk number indicting the greedy "American Dream" into a sensationally demented show-stopper, a winningly nasty nightmare vision of corruption and greed in the land of opportunity, as he literally makes love to that dazzling Cadillac.
Red Concepción received rave reviews as “The Engineer” in the UK Tour of Miss Saigon. His many theatre credits in his native Philippines include Adam/Felicia in “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert” for which he won the ALIW Award and Gawah Buhay Award. Emily Bautista made her Broadway revival debut of Miss Saigon where she understudied and played the role of ‘Kim.’ She has been most recently seen as Éponine in the current national tour of “Les Misérables.” Anthony Festa has most been recently been seen in NYC in the Outer Critics Circle Award-winning best musical, “Desperate Measures.” He has also toured with the companies of “Wicked” and “Finding Neverland.”
J. Daughtry has been seen on Broadway in “Beautiful—The Carole King Musical” and “The Color Purple.” His TV appearances include Boardwalk Empire, Law & Order: SVU, Elementary and Orange is the New Black. Mr. Daughtry also rescues the sanctimonious opening anthem of Act II—a canned plea for homeless “Amerasian” children condemned to the epithet “bui-doi,” the “dust of life”—with a gospel delivery so blistering and committed that he overpowers an onslaught of cliched lyrics, film clips and even an all-men’s backup choir.
Ellen is played by Ellie Fishman (“Finding Neverland,” “The Hello Girls”). During the first two years after Chris’ return from Vietnam, he was inconsolable and Ellen was the one who cared for him and saved him from his depression. She was never aware, however, that Chris had a Vietnamese wife named Kim whom he was forced to abandon during the tumultuous Fall of Saigon. A year into their marriage, Chris finally tells Ellen about his past in Vietnam and that, according to John, Kim is still alive living in Bangkok with their son. Although seemingly unsure of her own feelings towards the matter, Ellen surprisingly joins John and Chris as they leave to find Kim, with climactic scenes following.
With the expertise of lighting designer Bruno Poet, along with his lighting team, Warren Letton and John Viesta, simulated bamboo and fabric-dominated sets are used as a floating canvas and lit seductively for effect; perfectly timed sequences of lights depict realistic flashes of explosives in other scenes. An opening "Apocalypse Now" sunrise that bleeds into a hazy panorama of a Saigon morning is as delicate as an Oriental print, and the Act I climax, in which survivors set off for points unknown, is stunning because it relies on the slow exit by the characters to the rear of a gradually deep, darkened stage stripped of most scenery.
The stage, mostly harsh, broken up occasionally with kitsch, represent the neon-drenched Bangkok nightlife redolent of the same milieu in “Chess.” The staging isn’t seamless, but is particularly punctuated with bold strokes and technological gimmickry that holds an audience rapt, especially the noisy, smoky appearance of a helicopter (using lead-in projections, dissolving into the real thing) and later of a glittery, menacing Cadillac. The helicopter stunt startles the audience for shock value, throwing Andrew Lloyd Webber fans a pseudo-chandelier in like manner.
To be sure, the hallucinatory view of Vietnam for those familiar from the films of Oliver Stone, the journalism of Michael Herr or the fiction of Robert Stone is beyond Director Connor’s mission, just as any thoughtful analysis of the war is beyond the libretto. The text of "Miss Saigon" says merely that the North Vietnamese were villains and that the Americans were misguided, bungling do-gooders. Facts and haircuts are fudged, the corrupt South Vietnamese regime is invisible and any references to war atrocities are swept under the rug.
For “Miss Saigon,” the concept, book and music is by Claude-Michel Schonberg; lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil; adapted from original French lyrics by Mr. Boublil; directed by Laurence Connor; orchestrations by William David Brohn; musical supervision by Stephen Brooker; projections by Luke Halls; lighting by Bruno Poet; costumes by Andreane Neofitou; sound by Mick Potter; musical staging and choreography by Bob Avian, with additional choreography by Geoffrey Garratt. This production is presented by Cameron Mackintosh, with design concept by Adrian Vaux and set production design by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley.
Director Connor has also provided quite a few colorful dances featuring an amazingly agile ensemble, including a mock-martial ballet around a towering gold-cast likeness of Ho Chi Minh attached to the back wall, which is particularly entertaining.
Rounding out the ensemble players are Christine Bunuan as Gigi, Anna-Lee Wright as Yvonne, Jonelle Margallo as Mimi, Rae Leigh Case as Fifi, Madoka Koguchi as Dominique, Jackie Nguyen as Yvette, with Keila Halili, Keely Hutton and Francesca Nong as the Bar Girls. Marines are played by Devin Archer, Taylor Collins, Matthew Dailey, Noah Gouldsmith, David Kaverman, McKinley Knuckle, Adam Roberts, Michael Russell and Nicholas Walters. The Barmen are Philip Ancheta, Eric Badique and Adam Kaokept. Jinwood Jung is Thuy, and Dragon Acrabats are Noah Gouldsmith, McKinley Knuckle and Kevin Murakami. Assistant Commissar is Julius Sermonia, Tam is Smith Taeyang Carl, Ryker Huetter, Haven Je and Adalynn Ng. The Vietnamese Army Soldiers are Philip Ancheta, Eric Badique, Eymard Cabling, Adam Kaokept, Garrick Macatangay and Matthew Overberg.
Additional Understudies include for Kim: Francesca Nong; for The Engineer: Eric Badique, Eymard Cabling; for Chris: Devin Archer, Adam Roberts; for John: David Kaverman, Nicholas Walters; for Ellen: Keely Hutton, Jonelle Margallo; for Thuy: Eymard Cabling, Julius Sermonia; for Gigi: Madoka Koguchi, Jonelle Margallo.
Cameron Mackintosh’s “Miss Saigon” is now playing at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts through October 13th. Please see www.boxofficeticket.center/ for details of times and prices. This show has the ultimate recommendation!
The Show Report