MISS SAIGON Misses The Mark At The Fox Theatre

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The Helicopter Scene during "Kim's Nightmare" in MISS SAIGON, Apr 23 - May 5, 2019 at the Fox Theatre, St .Louis. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy and Johan Persson

The first time I saw the Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil classic Les Misérables, I wasn’t particularly happy. If I recall, I called my experience “very miserable indeed.” Over time and with the encouragement of my brilliant lady, I now greatly enjoy that sung-through musical tale of a failed French revolution. With my recent conversion to being a Les Misérables fan I assumed my first foray into Boublil and Schönberg’s revered Miss Saigon, which made its St. Louis debut when the National tour stopped at the Fabulous Fox Theatre for an April 23 – May 5, 2019, run, that I’d enjoy it right from the start. Perhaps my expectations were too high; perhaps I have developed certain sensibilities about language and attitudes towards different sexes and races that might be appropriate for the time but aren’t quite so acceptable today. Or perhaps Les Mis, is the outlier, and I still don’t care much for sung-through musicals anymore than I ever did. Whatever the case, Miss Saigon was a mixed bag of strong production values but uneven performances of a story I don’t see me changing my mind about any time soon.

The short version of the plot is: War is Hell. Guy meets Girl at Vietnam brothel ran by sleazy man named Engineer, and they fall in love.  Girl is betrothed via arranged marriage to her cousin, who has joined the ranks of the Communists. Guy goes home, Communist cousin threatens to kill Girl’s young son by Guy who wasn’t even aware he was a father. Girl kills weird Communist cousin but feels guilty. Guy’s friend becomes an advocate for reuniting the offspring of soldiers with their fathers, and tracks down Girl and son for Guy. Guy and American wife go to Thailand to find his son. Engineer tells Girl to find Guy while Guy searches for Girl. She finds American wife instead. Complications ensue. The end. 

Based in part on Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini, the story is decent, but the characters might be a little too flawed. Nearly everyone has some major issues, and it is rather exhausting to wait for the inevitable doom that awaits them. The Engineer, played by Red Concepción, is rotten to the core, preying on nearly everyone he meets to get enough money and influence to get a visa to travel to America. Concepción was good as the Engineer, bringing a “Jack Black” kind of manic energy to the role. Chris and Kim, played by Anthony Festa and Emily Bautista, respectively, both seem to be talented actors but there was just something about them individually that didn’t click for me. From what I could tell, Sgt. Chris is supposed to be strong enough to get in the face of a randy G.I. and be morally superior enough to resist the temptations of the Engineer’s Dreamland Girls. Festa doesn’t quite project that tough guy image, especially against his friend John, played by J. Daughtry, who looks like he could take Chris easily. As I watched the show, I realized that Festa reminded me of Seth Meyers: handsome, affable, likely quite witty, but not tough Vietnam war veteran material. Bautista projects the naivety of an unsophisticated young woman in distressing times, but over projects on some songs. I expected Kim to be a bit of a wallflower, timid and scared as her world spirals out of control. On songs like Sun and Moon she sang loud and forceful when the scene seemed to call for soft and tender. Both Festa and Bautista would be excellent fits for many other roles (Festa’s regional credits include Roger in Rent and Drew in Rock of Ages, both of which he seems ideally suited for). Jinwoo Jung, most recently seen in M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass, is fine as Thuy, though his character is completely unlikable and a little heavy-handed. The Engineer is just slimy, but Thuy is dangerous, and I had trouble reconciling Kim’s anguish over having killed him to save her son. Killing, even in self-defense or the defense of a loved one, is never easy, but the degree to which it haunted her seemed excessive. Stacie Bono, who played Chris’ American wife Ellen, was arguably the only character in the show without deep flaws. Other than J. Daughtry looking more imposing than Festa, his character John had no qualms about slinging a woman over his shoulder and putting cash in the Engineer’s hand as he marched off for some debauchery. He at least redeems himself a little by taking up the cause of the “Bui Doi,” the half-Vietnamese, half-American kids left behind by soldiers who probably, in most cases, didn’t know they’d ever sired a child there.

While I struggled a bit with the cast, and the inclusion of a wide-eyed Mormon missionary at the Engineer’s brothel that was clearly a more recent addition to the show as a playful nod to The Book of Mormon that, while worth a chuckle, didn’t really fit with the tone of the show, the sets and theatrical effects were terrific. The second act was especially effective in showing off the production team’s wizardry, as the set seemed to morph seamlessly to change perspectives from inside and outside the U.S. Embassy during “Kim’s Nightmare (Fall of Saigon 1975).” This is also the scene famous for the helicopter that appears to take off over the stage. The use of shadow, strobe lighting and a series of lights suspended from the rear of the stage to the front seats that blink to give the appearance of a helicopter’s running lights flying up and out into the audience was extremely effective.

I’m not sure what I was expecting with Miss Saigon—perhaps something closer to South Pacific meets the second act of Good Morning, Vietnam, I guess. I was not expecting the ensemble to be grinding on each other, grabbing breasts and butts, and the leads stripping down on the Fox stage. I wasn’t expecting to find the plot so threadbare—the love of Chris and Kim feels sudden and forced on the audience, Kim’s actions at the show’s climax seemed simultaneously altruistic and selfish, Chris’ character seems inconsistent and the ending is not the typical happy or at least redemptive scene most people expect from a musical. I’m sure many of the Fox’s patrons were thrilled by this tour’s rendition of the long-running Broadway hit, but I’m not sure this show is my cup of tea.

Feel free to judge for yourself—visit www.FabulousFox.com for more information about ticket availability and show times for Miss Saigon, and the upcoming end to this season’s Broadway Series, Come From Away, which runs May 14 – 26, 2019.

Grade: 
3.5 / 5.0