Review: Miss Saigon

Anthony Festa and Emily Bautista in Miss Saigon                                  Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Larry Laneer
January 16, 2020

It takes a real tragedy to make you feel good at the theater. And the more they pour on the spectacle, the better it gets. A case in point is the musical Miss Saigon, the Vietnam War story that’s based on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, an earlier operatic drama about havoc wreaked by Americans in Asia. Both the opera and the musical today raise whole new controversies.

Now at the Thelma Gaylord as part of the OKC Broadway touring series, this production is the road version of the 2017-2018 Broadway revival, directed by Laurence Connor. Set in Saigon and other locations between 1975 and 1978, Miss Saigon closely follows the Madama Butterfly story line. An American soldier (Chris) meets a young Vietnamese woman (Kim) and love ensues, although they may not have the same understanding about the true nature of the relationship.

With a score by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr., Alain Boublil, and Michael Mahler, this musical is operatic. The sung-through score soars from aria to—oh, sorry—song to song, while a large cast fights through war and its aftermath. The original London and Broadway productions of this 1989 show famously featured a realistic helicopter flying onstage. When the first touring version of the show played here in 2004, the aircraft was depicted in an inadequate video. Stagecraft has made advances since then, and this production includes a pretty good onstage helicopter.

The production design by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley features large set pieces that move fluidly through many scene changes. Projections by Luke Halls, chiaroscuro lighting by Bruno Poet, Andreane Neofitou’s costumes, and Mick Potter’s sound design combine to create a spectacle worthy of grand opera. A few times, this production even sounds like it’s being sung in a foreign language. Miss Saigon isn’t a dancing show, but Bob Avian’s musical staging features some acrobatic moves in the first act.

The first-rate cast gives strong performances throughout the show. Anthony Festa (Chris) and Emily Bautista (Kim) have convincing chemistry, strong singing voices, and solid acting chops.  J. Daughtry goes from jerk to humanitarian as the soldier John. Jinwoo Jung as Thuy (and Thuy’s ghost!) and Ellie Fishman as Ellen are fine in featured roles. As The Engineer, Red Concepción is excellent as the smarmy opportunist. Actually, the character illustrates achingly  the desperation many people find themselves in during times of strife. Conceptión’s second act “The American Dream” rings ruefully true. At the reviewed performance, young Ryker Huetter as Tam got the loudest curtain call; I bet this happens no matter who plays the role.

Recently, some commentators have raised legitimate objections about the opera and musical regarding racism and denigration of Asian women. You will get no disagreement about that from me. But I saw the show with a friend who lived in Saigon until 1979, and she was then only a few years younger than Kim is in the show. My friend said she did not see the musical as racist or denigrating. In fact, she said Miss Saigon depicts precisely life in the city and the desperate measures some young women like Kim had to take at the time.

Like art works throughout history, Miss Saigon shows war to be what it is:  Hell for everyone, not just the soldiers and those in the theater of war. Will humanity ever learn its lesson? I’m not optimistic.

Miss Saigon by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Richard Maltby, Jr.,
Alain Boublil, and Michael Mahler
OKC Broadway
7:30 p.m. Thursday, January 16, 8:00 p.m. Friday, January 17, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, January 18, 1:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Sunday, January 19
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.