“Un bel di,” Cio-Cio-San famously warbled at the 1904 premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, yearning for the return of American Lieutenant Pinkerton from across the Pacific to honor their marriage vows and his responsibilities toward their son. Four score and seven years later, the scene shifted from Japan to Vietnam for Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s Miss Saigon, in which Kim sang, “I Still Believe,” yearning for the return of American Staff Sgt. Chris — for exactly the same reasons.
There hasn’t been a touring production of Miss Saigon at Belk Theater in over 15 years. In the meantime, a new production directed by Laurence Connor came to Broadway in the spring of 2017 and folded in less than 10 months. The two key players in that recent remount both had Charlotte connections. Eva Noblezada, who snagged a Tony Award nomination as Kim, won the 2013 Blumey Award at Belk Theater as the best actress in a high school musical. And playing The Engineer, the most electrifying of Boublil’s new characterizations, Jon Jon Briones reprised the role he had played in the low-budget, chopper-less production that landed at Belk in November 2003.
I had to wonder whether the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon had been so short-lived because of the changes Connor had made to the 1991 original or because of changes the show still needed.
In the heat of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon, both Kim and Chris had noticeably evolved compared with their operatic ancestors. Chris tried to take Kim with him as the Vietcong overran the capital. He sought to locate Kim after he returned safely to Atlanta, and he seemed honestly conflicted between his true love and his wife, Ellen. Kim had also evolved, no longer the shy, passive, pitiful flower Puccini immortalized. There was steel and ferocity in her: she’d murder the Commie who threatened the life of her son.
Yet in some ways, the 1991 Broadway musical was more primitive and insensitive than the 1904 opera.
Schönberg and Boublil were less respectful toward the culture of the Vietnamese than Puccini was toward the culture of Japan in Butterfly or China in Turandot. Except for the costumes and a brief wedding ceremony, there was hardly any portrayal of indigenous culture in Saigon — and not a whiff of Asian music. Even the piety that Puccini dramatized in his Asian operas has vanished. Bar girls that we notice in Saigon are scantily clad whores, usually spreading their legs when they aren’t face to face with a GI’s crotch.
Love as a romantic concept is strictly confined to Kim, and the two Asian men who want her don’t seem to be familiar with the word. Thuy, who returns to Ho Chi Minh City as a conqueror after defecting to the Vietcong, views Kim as his rightful possession — and her son as a repugnant atrocity. Her protector is The Engineer, a slimy pimp who initially installs Kim in his sex stable as a virgin delicacy and subsequently views her and Tam, Chris’s American-citizen son, as his passport to the USA.
The most nuanced aspect of Boublil’s book was the opposition he set up between Thuy and The Engineer. Clad in his military uniform, Commissar Thuy was the embodiment of the Communism we were battling to keep at bay. Devoid of warmth, tenderness and humanity, he was a totalitarian gargoyle. The Engineer, on the other hand, was pure venal enterprise, emblematic of the insidious corruption that American capitalism always leaves in its wake.
It was horrifying — and strangely exhilarating — to see how totally The Engineer had absorbed our perverted values in his climactic showstopper, “The American Dream.” Part of the reason that Americans came home feeling that the Vietnamese hadn’t been worth fighting and dying for, after all, stemmed from the unsavory effects of our being there and spreading our influence.
Well, the new Miss Saigon didn’t show me any more empathy toward the Vietnamese than before, nor any more of their indigenous culture. If anything, The Engineer and his Bar Girls seemed raunchier, more mercenary, and more degraded than I had remembered. Downsized to more realistic proportions, Red Concepción’s portrayal of The Engineer is more quietly servile and less flamboyant than Joseph Anthony Foronda’s was in 1997, the first time a prop copter landed at the Belk. So when Concepción suddenly breaks into his “American Dream,” the fantasy isn’t just what The Engineer’s life will be on richer USA soil, it’s also a fantasy about who he will become.
Yes, the helicopter is back on the Belk stage during the fall of Saigon for the first time in over 21 years, and so is the shiny Cadillac where The Engineer, humping the hood, has an orgasm during his fantasy. The years haven’t been as kind to Kim. We expect more of our female heroes nowadays, so killing a Commie no longer earns Kim an exclamation mark.
Working within the traditional Cio-Cio-San constraints, Emily Bautista is more assertive and less decorous as Kim, getting two duets with the “other woman,” outshining Stacie Bono as Ellen on both occasions. A generic belter, Bono makes Bautista look better than Andreane Neofitou’s bland costumes do. Sprucing up his script, Boublil has added a Trump slogan to The Engineer’s spiel and a Mormon to the rascal’s clientele. Maybe the latter is the inspiration for Adrian Vaux’s design concept, which brings a Third World squalor to Saigon and to Bangkok that reminds me of the Africa where the missionaries of The Book of Mormon were deployed.
Bautista brings the most beauty to Kim when she sings her lovely “The Last Night of the World” duet with Anthony Festa as Chris. Festa gives Chris more texture than I would have thought possible, making me wish that Boublil hadn’t taken Pinkerton’s rehab quite so far. Kim begins as a $50 gift from his best bud John, Chris’s PTSD is all about Kim rather than battle fatigue or horrific warfare. The bravest action Festa gets to perform is filling Ellen in on all he has hidden from her about that last night before he climbed onto the US Marines helicopter — and all the news he has just learned about his son.
Getting the word from J. Daughtry as John certainly doesn’t boost the drama. Another generic belter, Daughtry sings his “Bui-Doi” (“dust of life”) appeal for the stigmatized mixed-race children of Saigon’s streets as if he were a competitor on The Voice rather than a contrite vet in a poignant Broadway show. True, Daughtry came to life nicely later in Act 2, showing what he was capable of dramatically when John, Chris and Ellen tracked down Kim and The Engineer, now refugees in Bangkok. Before receding into the ensemble (perhaps not as inconspicuously as he should), Jinwoo Jung was a malign force to be reckoned with as Commissar Thuy, especially when Chris wasn’t around in Saigon to protect Kim.
In fairness to the cast, conditions at the Performing Arts Center weren’t ideal for performing — or reviewing — a big-budget Broadway musical. Because of travel and load-in delays, the curtain time was rescheduled from 7:30 pm to 8:00. But the first notes of the overture weren’t played until 8:37, long after we had finally been seated. Intermission lasted over 32 minutes, so when Act 2 started, it was nearly 10:25, past the time when the show would normally end . Maybe that’s why the production fell short of my hopes when the curtain fell an hour later.
Or maybe, just maybe, the clock has struck midnight on a sob story that first opened on Broadway in 1900 as a one-act play by David Belasco. Instead of Belasco, or Puccini’s librettists, or Boublil looking into the heart of a Japanese geisha or a Vietnamese bar girl, maybe it’s time that this story was retold from an Asian viewpoint by an Asian writer.