"Miss Saigon" is Back and Weirdly Imposing as Ever

03/23/2017 06:56 pm ET

It may be the most famous coup de theatre in Broadway history: The appearance of the helicopter in the second act of Miss Saigon. Suddenly there it is, the huge replica, with its lights and noise, its seeming release of hot air and its slow, awkward landing—and then not too long after all manner of stage commotion carries on, it takes off just as clumsily.

It’s not too much of a stretch to observe that the sequence acts—certainly unintentionally—as a metaphor for the great big, huge exhaust Claude-Michel Schonberg-Alain Boublil-Richard Maltby Jr. musical with additional Michael Mahler lyrics.

Here it comes again just about exactly 26 years after its first landing. It huffs and puffs and settles itself awkwardly but tenaciously on the Broadway Theatre stage. There’s no denying it now, just as there was no denying it then. The only way to treat it is to stand aside when it settles and then, if so inclined, race to climb aboard it.

The core idea is intriguing, of course. Retell Madama Butterfly in an updated thrust and with a modern rock-oriented score. (The notion was so taking that several years later, La Boheme became Rent. Some would say Andrew Lloyd Webber has been less obvious about Puccini allusions.)

So now we have Vietnam waif Kim (beautiful Eva Noblezada) eyed by American soldier Chris (handsome Alistair Brammer) at a bar where the hookers spend their work-time hanging from poles, while under the mean eye of devious operator, The Engineer (Jon Jon Briones).

Inevitably, Kim and Chris cohabit and even undergo a local Saigon marriage ritual but are sundered when Chris must leave via the irrefutable helicopter, and Kim is left behind—with three years later, their son Tam (Gregory Ye, at the performance I saw).

Chris, meanwhile, has married Ellen (Katie Rose Clarke) and, despite nightmares in which he’s haunted by Kim, is happily nuptialized. Things come to a head when, informed that Kim is live and well and living in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), Chris takes Ellen to meet Kim and hopes all will be well. Which it isn’t quite, if the Madama Butterfly denouement springs to mind.

It would seem incumbent on any composer attempting a spin on Giacomo Puccini to write music at that level. Schonberg has fans who will claim he has done just that. Not everyone will.

Schonberg has his musical quirks—just as Puccini did—but they tend to be heavy-handed. Every time Kim sings, it’s as if she’s repeating the same aria. Chris’s songs, fewer in number, have more individuality. William David Brohn provided just the strain of orchestrations called for, and James Moore conducts accordingly.

Miss Saigon does have one sensational number. It’s “The American Dream” with Maltby’s brashly hilarious lyrics. Sung by The Engineer, it’s given a stunning production by choreographer Geoffrey Garrett, working with stage-choreographer Bob Avian. The original routine included a Cadillac—which arrives more smoothly than the helicopter--and that still goes. Great.

Throughout, everything possible to be done to overwhelm the patrons has been done. So congratulations of a sort go out to Laurence Connor for directing with power. Also: The indispensable lighting and indispensable sound are by, respectively, Bruno Poet and Mick Potter. The design concept is by Adrian Vaux, the projections by Luke Halls. The production is designed by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley.

As to the performers: Briones is a marvel. He’s a reason to see this bloated whip-up. Noblezada, Brammer and Clarke are all fine, but curiously, their singing is pitched at a strange adolescent level. They’re young—Kim is 16—but need they sound that young?

What can certainly be said about Miss Saigon is that if you go for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’re likely to go for.

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