A CurtainUp DC Review
For those who are too young to have seen the original, the story follows pretty much that of the opera Madame Butterfly. A man from a foreign land falls in love with a naive native girl. He goes home, she is left behind in an impoverished state, bears his child, and lives in hope of her lover's return. In Miss Saigon the story is transposed to Viet Nam at the beginning of the end of that war, where American troops, far from home, on a useless mission, seek solace at a local dive where beer and prostitutes, many of whom would give anything for a visa to the United States, are on offer.
Add to this morass of sleaze,the Engineer— a pimp, a fixer, of no moral bearing whatsoever. The character serves as an Emcee reminiscent of the similar role in the musical Cabaret. Thom Sesma, as the Engineer, got off to a slow start vocally but redeemed himself later by singing beautifully "If You Want to Die in Bed," and particularly the powerful and guilt-inducing satirical number "The American Dream." He's a charmingly light-footed hoofer who leaves you wanting more of his Fred Astaire-like moves.
Choreographer Karma Camp, a Signature regular, has made the most of putting a large ensemble through their paces on a small stage. Armed at times with rifles, at times with red banners signifying the North Vietnamese take over, adding a little Kung Fu, and an homage to A Chorus Line, the cast moves precisely and fast. Terrific stuff that.
While the dancing adds greatly to the show's ability to entertain, it is the ambiance that creates a chilling reality. Bravo, scenic designer Adam Koch. Bravo, sound designer Matt Rowe. From the moment you enter the theater, with the sound of planes overhead and passing in the lobby a piece of fusilage that looks as though a bomb ripped through it. Masses of torn grey fabric marred with dirt hang from the lobby ceiling and stage flies depict what? Parachutes that failed and the general detritus of war. There is no mistaking the seriousness of the time and place one is about to enter.
The heart of Miss Saigon is, of course, the romance between Kim, (Diana Huey) the sweet Viet Namese virgin with a tragic hard luck story, and the American GI who loves her and wants to take her home to the States. No go. The helicopter — yes, there's a helicopter with bright head lights (and clever lighting by Chris Lee) and an almost overbearing loud whirr — leaves the American embassy compound without her. While her lover, Chris, played by understudy Gannon O'Brien, rebuilds his life in the States, Kim leads a depraved life in Bangkok looking after their love child.
Miss Saigon is never short of melodrama, but Kim makes every scene she is in and song she sings believable. Signature has a knack for finding young performers with superb voices who can deliver excellent performances but none matches Diana Huey's memorable and moving Kim. Her final scene with Chris is heartbreaking, truly.
The ensemble works well, the 15-piece orchestra delivers the goods and the supporting cast is fine. Christopher Mueller as Thuy has a strong voice and presence. Chris Sizemore makes Chris's friend John very believable whether they are soldiers partaking of a little R and R in a Saigon bar or guilt-ridden ex-GI's trying to make sense of what they saw and did in Viet Nam. As Tam, Kim and Chris's three year-old son, Matthew Berman (who alternates with two other kids, Erin and Joel Chen) is cute as a button but somewhat lacking in emotion.
Where this production falters is in the role of Ellen (Erin Driscoll), Chris's stateside wife. Her character as written is flaccid. Are we supposed to think that she has trouble believing that her husband loved someone else before their marriage? To add to the disconnect and slowing to an almost dirge what was up till then a smooth and fast pace, Ellen sings "Maybe," a new number written by Richard Maltby Jr. for this production. The long whiney song about whether Chris still loves her "Now I've Seen Her" and "It's Her or Me." This is not an improvement.
One other consideration to bear in mind is timing. When Miss Saigon was first produced in London in 1989 and in New York in 1991) Viet Nam was still an open wound on the American psyche. A generation later Viet Nam is more likely to be a vacation destination or its cuisine a night out treat at one of many restaurants in Northern Virginia, where Signature is located. Some audience members may also connect the tragedies imposed by that war in the 1960's and 1970's with the current situation as the U.S. debates entering, even in a limited way, the Syrian civil war. This brings home vividly that as entertaining as Miss Saigon is — and you are unlikely to see a better production anywhere — it does have, along with gorgeous music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and sharply worded lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr., something serious to say about love and war.
One brief note: Signature's production is separate from Cameron Mackintosh's revival of scheduled to open in London, in May, 2014, 25 years after the original, starring Lea Salonga and Jonathan Pryce, opened.