In 1983, my mother erupted in sobs during the overture of Madama Butterfly. Of course, she was pregnant at the time. I had no such hormonal provocations to aid me when I saw Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Miss Saigon, which transplants Puccini’s opera to the end of the Vietnam War, and I must admit that I was significantly less moved. Overstuffed with prostitutes, refugees, out of wedlock pregnancies, suicides, and lascivious Mormons, and moving at a pace that would make Game of Thrones feel dry and plotless, this show crams far too much material into its two and a half hours. There is hardly enough space to breathe, let alone feel.
We begin with a romance between an American GI, Chris (Alistair Brammer), and a Vietnamese prostitute, Kim (Eva Noblezada). By my count, this takes about fifteen minutes—maybe a song or two—and serves as the basis for the melodrama that follows. Granted, Kim distinguishes herself from the other “girls” in Dreamland, as does Chris from his fellow soldiers, but sexual modesty and colonialist sympathy alone cannot account for their whirlwind affair. Perhaps Chris and Kim’s relationship is accelerated by the violence around them. And they are, after all, kids living under the realities of an adult world. Still, this is an extrapolation, and the musical never makes clear exactly why, years after the war ends, Chris is crying out Kim’s name in his sleep while Kim waits patiently for her lover to return and rescue her.
It is true that Miss Saigon is deliciously lavish. The stage is consumed by enormous busts of Ho Chi Minh and Lady Liberty; it is straddled with neon signs representing the underworld of Bangkok; and, in its most awe-inspiring moment, a full-sized helicopter rotates and lands before shuttling the remaining Americans out of the country. Furthermore, I suppose the casting of Asian actors in Asian roles is an improvement over the original London production, which had Jonathan Pryce donning yellowface and eye prosthetics.
Mr. Pryce was playing the Engineer, Kim’s pimp, who is here wonderfully embodied by Jon Jon Briones. Mr. Briones clearly relishes the part, and his naked theatricality, which recalls the Emcee in Cabaret, offers Miss Saigon‘s only moments of relief. He is particularly good in his paean to Western capitalism, “The American Dream,” which finds him gleefully tossing dollars into the air and humping a white convertible. Paired with the image of the South Vietnamese grasping at non-existent American help, the musical certainly finds contemporary resonance, even without the cheeky reference to Donald Trump.
Nevertheless, I would have preferred more matter with less art. Miss Saigon uses spectacle to manufacture tragedy, forgetting the human element along the way. After their first night together, Chris croons, “I liked my mem’ries as they were / But now I’ll leave rememb’ring her.” I wish I could say the same.