“Miss Saigon” is deployed in its current tour of duty at the Kennedy Center, and it is nothing short of a magnificent victory — unlike the situation of the last days of the ill-fated capital of the erstwhile Republic of Vietnam, the mise-en-scène for this 1989 smash musical.
In this extraordinary work by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil of “Les Miserables” fame, who exactly is Miss Saigon? Is she the most popular “working girl” for American soldiers stationed near a certain brothel in South Vietnam’s capital in the early 1970’s? Is she Kim, the girl lucky enough to fall in love with and marry an American and presumably escape the Fall of Saigon? Is she a metaphor for all Vietnamese abandoned to their fate in the emergency American evacuation of Saigon? She is all of these things, and more.
…nothing short of a magnificent victory…
The Kennedy Center’s “Miss Saigon” pulls out all stops in terms of stunning Broadway chorus numbers and over-the-top sets and props, including a helicopter which hovers above the stage. This production is important not just as extravaganza and spectacle, but in order to bring out the operatic qualities of the piece which a lesser production might not be able to emphasize in the appropriate way.
This tale of an American GI who falls in love with a Vietnamese girl, fathers her child, returns to the States, and later encounters the one-time love with his current Caucasian American wife presents Puccini’s “Madam Butterfly” in modern dress, with the orchestra (directed with symphonic seriousness by Will Curry ) emulating orchestral phrases from Puccini’s “Tosca” and director Laurence Connor’s trope of a picture falling ominously to the floor as a presentiment of doom recalling Weber’s “Der Freischütz.”
“Monsieur” (actually, marine) Chris, the American character central to this drama, is portrayed ably by Anthony Festa, who sings “Why, God, Why” with poignancy and pathos. 17-year-old Vietnamese orphan Kim is played by Emily Bautista (Myra Molloy, in some performances), who elicits our sympathy both for her purity of character and her hopeless plight, all synthesized so well in her beautiful solo “The Movie in My Mind.” When Chris/Anthony and Kim/Emily come together in the duet “The Last Night of the World,” the results are magnified brilliance.
Red Concepción as the Engineer is dynamically engaging while we get a peek into his seedy world. “Engineer” is meant in several senses, as he “engineers” prostitutes and GI’s into sexual relationships, “engineers “ rooting out Kim in hiding from her nemesis, “engineers” his and Kim’s flight from Vietnam to Thailand as refugees, and at the end of the day “engineers” his own position to advantage, segueing from capitalist entrepreneur to Communist informant, ever angling for that elusive U.S. passport. Red Concepción, in his deft enactment of this character, twists, begs, flatters, hits, and manipulates in every way possible in search of his “American Dream,” the big production number he sings. At this “American Dream” moment, “Miss Saigon” rivals any musical one can think of for a splashy production number. Again, this is evident due to Mr. Concepción’s talents and the large-scale production at the Kennedy Center. Choreographer Bob Avian is certainly to be commended for the effectiveness of this scene and production number.
The Kennedy Center’s “Miss Saigon” is a musical which will stay as a “Movie in the Mind” of the viewer for days . . . and we think much longer. This is not only because of the talented cast, high-quality production values, and magnificent music, but also because the production causes reflection on some of the most important questions of human and cultural identity: love, war, cross-cultural confrontation, ideological preference, and responsibility for one’s family and indeed for one’s fellow human beings. The current staging, which runs through January 13, brings all of these qualities of “Miss Saigon” magnificently to the fore.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.
Advisory: Adult language and themes.
“Miss Saigon” plays through January 13, 2018, at the Kennedy Center Opera House — 2700 F Street NW in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online.