Since its debut in North America over 28 years ago, Miss Saigon continues to delight audiences. The story is based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and cleverly places it in war-torn Vietnam, just before the fall of Saigon. Composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil reteamed to create Miss Saigon as their follow-up to the enormously successful Les Miserables. This new production, directed by Laurence Connor and featuring the original choreography by Bob Avian, takes a grittier, more realistic approach that magnifies the power and epic sweep of Schönberg and Boublil’s tremendous score. Additional lyrics are by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Michael Mahler.
The show opens with a young South Vietnamese woman named Kim, who is orphaned by war and forced to work in a bar run by a character known as the Engineer. There she meets and falls in love with an American G.I. named Chris, but they are torn apart by the fall of Saigon. Kim goes on a journey of survival to find her way back to Chris, who has no idea he’s fathered a son.
Three years later, Kim is a single mother who supports her little boy as a dancer in a Bangkok strip joint. Driven by the hope that Chris will one day rescue her and whisk her off to America, she does not know that he is now married to Ellen. With nightmares of Saigon and of not getting Kim out, Chris remains haunted by his conscience and his past.
This new production features an array of spectacles and a cast of 42 performing the soaring score, including Broadway hits like “The Heat is On in Saigon,” “The Movie in My Mind,” “Last Night of the World,” and “American Dream.”
The set is dazzling and impressive. At one point it is segmented to display both Ho Chi Min City (formerly Saigon) below, where Kim and her son live, together with Atlanta above where Chris and his wife Ellen live, enabling the actors to harmonize together in song. This effect also gives the audience a more intimate view of how life is now for both parties and how the ravages of war continue to affect them all. Another effect I particularly liked, was that of Kim’s former childhood friend, Thuy, who appears as a ghost at the top of the stage in black and white and then swoops down like a specter and then walks out on the stage. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
Then there’s the helicopter. If you’ve heard anything about the set of Miss Saigon it is probably about the helicopter. During the second act a combination of projection and an enormous set piece gives the audience a thrill as an enormous helicopter seemingly lands on stage. In the foreground, the desperation of the people waiting for their chance to be taken away in an American helicopter is palpable.
This production has had its technical challenges, however. Opening night in San Jose of this touring show was supposed to be Tuesday, November 12, but it was cancelled due to “unforeseen transportation delays of the show scenery” leaving ticket holders to either scramble for the few available seats in the remaining shows or get a refund. The night I attended, Wednesday, November 13, part of the set collapsed towards the end of the first act leaving the technical crew little choice except to pause the show for 30 minutes while they cleaned it up before continuing.
Miss Saigon is a show that will move you and make you gasp. Full of incredible effects, it is a show you will not be able to forget. This is a show I would recommend to anyone over the age of 13.
Miss Saigon is playing at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 S. Almaden Boulevard, now through November 17, 2019. The show runs about two-and-a-half hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Photos courtesy of Matthew Murphy