GAMMAGE AUDITORIUM. Miss Saigon. Jan. 10, 1999. Review By Kyle Lawson ARIZONA REPUBLIC
Maybe it was inevitable that our feelings toward Vietnam should come to this: a Gammage Auditorium audience standing and shouting its approval of a musical that knees America’s involvement in Southeast Asia in the groin.
The national cynicism toward the war is worn to the nub, the pain long ago turned to numbness. We are left with a sort of nostalgic curiosity about the past, and Miss Saigon gives us what we want.
It is madness restaged as a glitzy MGM musical, with a touch of Warner Bros. harshness and a generous heaping of Paramount romanticism. It can’t be a coincidence that one of the musical’s opening numbers is The Movie in My Mind.
We are movie-made America, after all, if not in our own sights, certainly in the world’s. Miss Saigon, we shouldn’t forget, was written by a pair of Frenchmen.
It may be one of the most successful musicals in history, but, as art, this extravaganza is wanting. Its characters have the depth of people in a Harlequin novel, the plotting is shamelessly manipulative, the music by Claude-Michel Schonberg isn’t a patch on his masterwork, Les Miserables. Alain Boublil’s lyrics come across as predictable and banal, though that may be the fault of Richard Maltby Jr., who translated them into English. Maltby’s lyrics for his own shows are proof all rhymers are not poets.
What Miss Saigon is, is a triumph of theatricality, and perhaps that is art of a kind. Producer Cameron Mackintosh and a team of inspired designers have cloaked the musical in scenes of such stunning imagery that its flaws almost disappear. The result is Brechtian in its epic sweep through the emotions.
The Gammage production is not the show it was in London, and it seems somewhat sparser than it did in New York, but scenic designer John Napier still serves up stage after stage of memorable set pieces. The helicopter lands on the roof of the Saigon embassy, Miss Liberty riding in a white Cadillac flies in from the skies, the towering statue of Ho Chi Minh rolls ponderously toward the front of the stage.
Lighting designer David Hersey bathes everything in a simmering stew of orange, scarlet and mustard, punctuated by cool blues and slashes of white.
Bob Avian’s dances are minispectacles in themselves, erotic and martial and thoroughly over the top.
It all is in service of what is, at heart, a schmaltzy operetta with a smutty mouth. Gammage audiences, usually conservative, seemed to take the gutter language and brothel antics of many scenes in stride. At least the men could appreciate the next-to-nothing costumes of the bar girls and the women the shirtless soldiers.
The spectacle may catch the crowd’s attention but it is the central love affair that captures its empathy. Suggested by Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Madama Butterfly, Miss Saigon is the story of Kim, forced into prostitution when her family is slaughtered in a military action, and Chris, an idealistic American soldier sickened by all he sees in Vietnam.
They are decent people caught up in the craziness of a world spinning off its hinges. For one brief, passionate moment, they find themselves in each other, only to lose whatever future they might have had in the Americans’ frantic evacuation of Saigon.
Chris goes back to a new life, a new wife and nights filled with terrifying dreams. Kim has nightmares of her own, as she struggles to survive in a Communist-ruled Vietnam and raise the son that Chris doesn’t know he has. She is sustained by the dream that some day Chris will come back and take them to America.
He does return, but their reunion isn’t what either expects. The affair, as in the opera, ends in tragedy and the sound of audience members reaching for their Kleenex.
Miss Saigon‘s splendor may be its backbone, but it is its cast that always has given it its heart. Few who saw them will forget the original Kim and Chris, Lea Salonga and Simon Bowman, or Jonathon Pryce as the Engineer, the oily Saigon pimp who serves the musical as a sort of demented emcee.
At Gammage, those roles are beautifully filled by Kristine Remigio, Steve Pasquale and Joseph Anthony Foronda. Remigio is a slip of a thing, a Dresden doll recast in an Eastern mold. By turns winsome, frightened, determined to survive, she is an innocent adrift and who better to bring her to shore than the handsomely stalwart Pasquale?
Their voices – hers a belter but capable of subtlety; his an almost lyrical tenor – make the most of the show’s only memorable song, the haunting Last Night of the World.
Foronda, if anything, is better than Pryce, though to many that will be heresy. He has all of the English actor’s scheming sliminess as the Engineer, but there is an unexpected vulnerability, a glimpse of the child seduced by the bright promise of tomorrow and ultimately betrayed.
That is the redeeming value of Miss Saigon. It reminds us that others don’t always see us as we want to be seen or, for that matter, as we see ourselves.
The comic-book cynicism of the Engineer’s big number, The American Dream, is rooted in the arrogant attitude that everything American is better. Nothing can live up to that promise and it is no surprise that a couple of Europeans, frustrated and angry at the way their culture is decking itself out in Levis and eating Big Macs, should pen a bitter retort.
Sad to say, the Ugly American is not a myth. Miss Saigon is its legacy.