I first became acquainted with Miss Saigon on my first trip to New York. I was in the fourth grade (Fall 1993). My (Filipino American) parents wanted to get me into Broadway shows. Though we have watched the classic Rogers and Hammerstein movies together, I still had yet to see a live show. They could have picked Cats (the eight year old Siamese cat owner thought real felines were the stars), Phantom, or something kid-friendly, but they nudged me to see the show that was a vehicle for Filipinos. Finding that all tickets were sold out, we waited for the first national tour to hit Los Angeles in January 1995. Miss Saigon was the first epic musical I have seen and I have been hooked on showtunes ever since.
I attended the matinee performance on April 28, 2012. The La Mirada production of Miss Saigon would mark my fifth time watching the chopper drama. Though following the same story as Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon is almost like an allegory for Vietnam and the United State’s relations during the last days of Saigon and the aftermath. “It’s Hetalia: Vietnam War,” I joked to my partner (who was seeing it for the first time). Directed by Brian Kite, the La Mirada production has made some bold directional choices for this staging.
Much like Jersey Boys, what always draws me back to watching Miss Saigon is seeing how different actors portray the characters. I always feel I learn something new and there’s something to take back. Miss Saigon has some of the best orchestrations arranged for the stage – you get chills when you start hearing the overture and the last bars of “Last Night of the World” makes you want to believe that Chris and Kim will have a happy ending.
The opening scene is different from other productions I have seen. Kim is in the spotlight while Chris is in the foreground and then it quickly dissolves into the Dreamland prostitutes getting ready. Swearing was also reduced. We loose bantering between John and Chris (“April fuckin’ moon?!”), but The Engineer still keeps his cursing.
I disagreed with costume choices. As a costume designer, I thought the dresses Kim’s prostitute friends (wait…how did they all become friends overnight? I’m glad the actress who played Gigi (April Malina) kept a bitter attitude at the start of the scene) were too fancy and too modern as if they were bought from Garden Grove. While I do appreciate that more Vietnamese culture was placed into this production of Miss Saigon (“Morning of the Dragon” does include Vietnamese style choreography), it still is important to keep in mind characters and the time period. The hairstyles the Dreamland bar girls had done up was much more reminiscent of 80s porn than the love-you-long-time-variety. I always thought it was interesting Kim’s “wedding” dress is white in recent stagings. In Vietnamese culture, white means death. Foreshadowing?
The biggest change up would be “Kim’s Nightmare,” or better known as the helicopter scene in Act 2. The director made it look like we were going into Kim’s subconscious. Instead of wearing the signature white ao dai, she is still in her robes from “Please.” Kim is pantomiming getting through the gates. In a way, it shows we are seeing it as she remembers it. As the helicopter leaves the base, everything goes to black and we’re left with Kim starting the reprise to “Sun and Moon.” This is the only part of the new direction that worked with me in the nightmare scene. Kim is left alone and forlorn and we transition back her room in Bangkok as we continue with the reprise.
Anyone who knows Miss Saigon knows how the story ends. Much like the start of the show, both Kim and Chris are in spotlight. Kim sings her last lines at her last breath. The rest of the cast are literally left in the shadows. I disagreed with this directional choice. Yes, Miss Saigon is a love story, but taking a step back, it’s also Kim’s love for Tam, John’s guilt, the Engineer’s twisted view of the American Dream, etc. All these come full circle in the final scene. Leaving them out of the picture looses that aspect.
The ensemble was phenomenal. Jacqueline Nguyen played Kim. Jacqueline is the first Vietnamese I have ever seen step into a role so dominated by Filipinos. She’s got an interesting story behind how she got the role. Though she’s still a fledgling, she acted the part nicely and was able to hit all the notes. Joseph Anthony Foronda’s Engineer had the most memorable performance. “American Dream” was a fun piece to watch and he lead it with perfection. Perhaps Joseph’s signature to the role of the Engineer is that he has a very raspy and sultry voice. He was sleazy and funny all at once. Kevin Odekirk’s Chris had really good chemistry with Jacqueline’s Kim. The duets between them were very pleasant, particularly during “Last Night of the World.” However, I was hoping that the bamboo bed didn’t break as they about to consummate; the set piece was wobbling on stage. (Is it me, but Kevin Odekirk is almost a ringer for the 9th Doctor.)
Other notable performance was Disney’s California Adventure’s Princess Jasmine (irony? Lea Salonga, the original Kim, did voice Princess Jasmine’s singing voice), Cassandra Murphy, played Ellen. Her version of “Now That I Seen Her” was flawless. John, played by Lawrence Cummings, epitomized postwar American guilt. “Bui Doi” is one of my favorite songs from the show; his powerhouse vocal chords accompanied by the male chorus was an emotional entrance to Act 2. Aiden Park as Thuy was fairly memorable. He was a very tall Thuy, so tall that I thought he was going to hit his head on the set. I thought it was an interesting choice to have him try to steal Tam during the “You Will Not Touch Him” scene. However, it also lead to a very slow and over dramatic death to where Tam (Ken Shim)’s reaction was priceless; his hands were over his face like the kid in Home Alone. However, Ken Shim was one of the more memorable Tams I have seen. Most Tams look sleepy on stage, but this Tam had a snarky personality. I loved the scene where The Engineer asks to give Tam a kiss, but Ken’s Tam wiped his mouth in disgust!
Overall, though the La Mirada took liberties at directional choices, it was still the ensemble delivered what I remember best about Miss Saigon: the music, the drama, and the epic production design. Productions of Miss Saigon are once in an April moon. If you have the time to check out Miss Saigon, definitely check it out.
erica @ scarlet-rhapsody.com
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