Theater Review: Why Are We in Miss Saigon?

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Jon Jon Briones, in Miss Saigon. Photo: Matthew Murphy/Miss Saigon

You probably already know whether you like Miss Saigon, the pop-opera retread of Madama Butterfly set against the collapse of the American experiment in Vietnam. If you do like it, by all means see the revival that’s opening on Broadway tonight; it won’t disappoint. If you don’t, come sit by me.

I needn’t rehash at length the controversy that surrounded the original production, which premiered in London in 1989 before arriving in New York, also at the Broadway Theatre, in 1991. The yellowface casting of Jonathan Pryce, a white actor, as the Engineer, a Eurasian pimp who serves as the story’s cynical emcee, led to protests, an Equity ban, an Equity reversal, and, eventually, a tradition in which the character is now always played by an actor of Asian descent. Currently, it’s Jon Jon Briones, who is Filipino; he’s prodigiously oily where Pryce was subtly unhinged.

But Miss Saigon has another, more pervasive sensitivity problem, one that is conceivably even worse than Madama Butterfly’s even though it was written eight decades later. I refer to the Orientalist conception of the work regardless of casting. (There were protests about this in 1991 as well.) As in Butterfly, Miss Saigon tells a tragic interracial love story. In place of the naval lieutenant Pinkerton in 1904 we have Chris, a white American sergeant stationed at the U.S. embassy in Saigon in 1975. The girl he falls for is not a 15-year-old geisha but a 17-year-old Vietnamese peasant named Kim, who has been forced into prostitution at a bar called Dreamland after her family is killed in the war. When the chaos of the mad evacuation of Americans from the city — cue the helicopter — separates the lovers, Kim waits three years for Chris’s return; she does not realize that in the meantime he has married, and he does not realize that in the meantime she has borne his child. The musical, like the opera, concludes with a final gesture by the title character to untie that knot and make sure her son is raised in America.

I have no bone to pick with the plot; the main elements of the story could well have been true. Puccini’s opera was ultimately based on a semi-autobiographical French novel, and there were surely “bar girls” in Saigon who fell in love with their American johns. They are characters, or rather types, worth making musical theater about, and there’s even something enlightened about connecting Chris’s betrayal of Kim to America’s betrayal of Vietnam. Miss Saigon further tries to shield itself against accusations of exoticism by making the plight of the bui doi — the biracial children left behind by GIs — the subject of a meant-to-be-stirring anthem. But in condemning the exploitation of the Vietnamese while in alternate breaths exploiting them for Broadway-scale titillation, the show tries to have it both ways. Miss Saigon is not, after all, a serious small-scale drama, or even a delicate, quasi-mythopoetic opera. It is a commercial behemoth, having already grossed several billion dollars worldwide, and was always planned as such. (“Mai Sai” cocktails are sold at the lobby bar.) Its cynicism is no less real for being a side effect.

Because clearly Miss Saigon does not mean to be, nor know it is, cynical. The scenes of American (and communist) bad faith are harrowing: the embassy evacuation with the left-behinds clawing at the fence, the re-education parade that depicts Ho Chi Minh’s victory* with a terrifying Constructivist pageant. (The musical staging is, once again, by Bob Avian.) But these are countered, and I would say overwhelmed, by the scenes in which the stereotypical stage prostitutes and the pneumatic GIs hump and parade with a vulgarity that no artistic or political purpose can justify. It’s one thing to dramatize the degradation of women; it’s another thing to wink while doing it. That they are Asian women does not improve the optics; at any rate, the show engages in the same double-dealing with its expropriation of Asian-ness. It says everything about the priorities of the authors — the Les Misérables team of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, don’t get me started — that the supposedly Vietnamese lyrics to the wedding song in Act One, sung by the Dreamland women to solemnize Kim’s love for Chris, were originally (according to a Times oral history of the yellowface scandal) “gobbledygook.”

The lyrics have been rewritten more authentically for this revival, which opened in London in 2014 and has spent several years on the road. And at least that song has a lovely melody. But it’s in keeping with the overall bombast of the material that even moments of relative calm fail to provide much relief. Partly that’s because the ballads, of which there are many, are more-or-less identical. And partly it’s because of the apparent choice to apply certain principles of Asian music to Boublil and Schönberg’s native Europop. In Les Miz, they managed to build fairly sturdy songs and vary them both internally and as a group; here, after proposing a cell of a melody, they seem to have no further ideas. The chorus of the Engineer’s big second-act number “The American Dream” largely consists of that one phrase repeated; you hear it more than 20 times before the thing is over. It is — congratulations! — a cynical song about cynicism. Worse, despite all the bells and whistles, which include a white Cadillac convertible bearing a naked woman in fur, it’s ineffective dramatically. The last thing it makes you think deeply about is the hollowness of American values.

But then the unrelieved hyperemphasis of Laurence Connor’s direction basically squashes whatever might be good in Miss Saigon. Certainly the rather delicate (if leather-lunged) performance of Eva Noblezada as Kim doesn’t get far across the footlights; you can hardly find her half the time. Indeed, none of the signposts and pointers an audience might look to for advice about what’s going on work properly: The sound is unspecific, the lighting is overbusy, and the set makes it seem as if everyone in the cast lives in everyone else’s hovel. It is only in that Constructivist parade, and a few similar scenes, that the pressure is equalized between the overwrought style of the production and its overwrought content. But it’s not a good sign when the most cogent parts of a musical about American perfidy are the ones that borrow a totalitarian esthetic.

I am also sorry to report that the helicopter looks like a manatee.

Miss Saigon is at the Broadway Theatre through January 13.

*This sentence has been changed to clarify the chronology of the show.

Theater Review: Why Are We in Miss Saigon?