Miss Saigon was the first show I ever saw on Broadway. My mother and I were in New York City touring colleges and picked up our tickets at TKTS. We didn’t get to sit together, but when it was over, we sobbed over a slice of cheesecake and rehashed what we’d just seen.
Twenty years later, the new revival playing at The Broadway Theatre — the very theater that housed the show when it first opened in 1991 — didn’t exactly have the same effect. The world is not the same, and my understanding of the world has shifted as well, my awareness of race, of war, and of love inevitably matured. And yet, I was occasionally transported back in time, recalling the feeling of belting “I’d Give My Life for You” at top volume as I drove home from school.
So I was conflicted when I left the theater, torn between the fairy dust sprinkled over my memories of this show and the reality that it simply might not actually be that great.
Miss Saigon is a loose interpretation of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly, and weaves the tragic story of Kim, a virginal Vietnamese girl, and Chris, an American G.I., as they fall in love at the end of the Vietnam War. The show is completely sung-through, which was common in the ’90s but feels a bit dated today. Further, much of those songs are sweeping, melodramatic ballads — the kind a teenaged theater nerd might love to sing in her car — which starts to make one crave an upbeat number.
But, oh, the upbeat numbers here. “The American Dream,” performed by the show’s pimp known as the Engineer, is one of the more famous tracks of the show, no doubt because of the massive set pieces (a car and a Lady Liberty head the width of the stage especially) that bring pomp and circumstance to the penultimate number about excitement at immigrating to the United States. However, given the current political conversation around immigration, this wasn’t the raucous good time I remembered; it felt uncomfortable, and when the Engineer threw in a joke about making America great again (something that surely wasn’t in Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s original script), he was met with awkward laughter.
In addition to launching the storied career of Lea Salonga (the original Kim), Miss Saigon is likely best known for two things: that big helicopter that lands in the middle of the stage (which is still pretty cool) and controversial casting, the likes of which continues to be a hot-button issue in Hollywood today. In the original production in London, Jonathan Pryce took on the role of the Engineer, and even wore prosthetics and yellowface makeup to appear Asian. When the production moved to Broadway, he remained in the role, and many protested. (Read more on the controversy here.) Today’s Engineer is portrayed by Jon Jon Briones, an actor from the Philippines who has performed off and on with the show since its inception. And he clearly takes great pride in the role, giving his slimy character a touching layer of empathy.
Eva Noblezada, this production’s Kim, makes her Broadway debut and is probably the show’s biggest wow (sorry, helicopter). Her voice doesn’t falter as she rips through power ballad after power ballad. Her Chris, Alistair Brammer, is solid if a bit out-performed by his costars.
In general, this new iteration, under the direction of Laurence Connor (School of Rock), has a more appropriately gritty feel than the show had in the ’90s, from the physical set to the portrayal of Americans and the consequences of war. Still, it’s a pretty darn schmaltzy show to begin with. B