First things first, Miss Saigon fans: You won?t miss the helicopter. Anyone wondering whether the megamusical — whose original 1989 production required oversize props and technical challenges including a shiny Cadillac, an 18-foot statue of Ho Chi Minh, and a helicopter that landed on stage — suffers from the decidedly intimate confines of the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., will be relieved to know that director Eric Schaeffer achieves a remarkable rotorcraft-like effect without ripping the roof off his 275-seat house.
Still, the heat is rarely on in Saigon. Thom Sesma does provide periodic jolts of wicked energy as the emcee-like Engineer. But as sweet and sweeping as Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg?s melodies are — less bombastic and more romantic than their score for Les Misérables, as befits this Vietnam War-set Madama Butterfly update?the lyrics, by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr., practically drip with cheese. ”You won?t believe all the things you?ll see! I know ?cause you?ll see them all with me,” sings Marine Chris (understudy Gannon O?Brien, who?s now taken over the role) to his 17-year-old bar girl?turned?bride Kim (Diana Huey).
It?s easy to forgive those clunkers if you?re invested in the lovestruck-at-first-sight pair?s story: But there?s no spark between the intense Huey and O?Brien, who looks almost disinterested. (Weirdly, he spends most of his big solo with his hands shoved in his pockets…searching, perhaps, for those high notes?) As Chris? sidekick John, Jason Michael Evans downplays what?s usually a scene-stealing role. And Erin Driscoll is disappointingly cold and shrill as his wife Ellen. To be fair, she?s not well served by ”Maybe,” Maltby Jr.?s new, and bland, Act 2 solo written for Ellen (replacing ”Now That I?ve Seen Her’). Oh yes: Chris and Kim don?t ride off into the sunset. Come on — it?s Butterfly. You don?t need a spoiler alert to know a happy ending isn?t in the offing.
This Saigon does, however, look sensational: Adam Koch?s airplane-graveyard set — bathed in Chris Lee?s moody blue lighting — is a broken-down thing of beauty. And it sounds gorgeous: The Signature isn?t one to cut corners, particularly where music is concerned. That?s a 15-piece orchestra behind the 18-person cast. And Huey, a non-Equity actress of Japanese descent, is a real discovery. Let?s hope someone sends her B-roll to producer Cameron Mackintosh, who?s mounting a 2014 production in honor of the musical?s 25th anniversary. It reportedly will feature ”Maybe.” I suspect it also will feature a real helicopter. A necessity? Perhaps not. C+
(Tickets: signature-theatre.org or 703-573-SEAT)