Broadway Review: “Miss Saigon” at the Broadway Theatre

Broadway Review: “Miss Saigon” at the Broadway Theatre (Through January 13, 2018)
Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil with Additional Lyrics by Michael Mahler
Directed by Laurence Connor
Reviewed by Joseph Verlezza
Theatre Reviews Limited

The 2017 Broadway revival of “Miss Saigon” raises rich and deep enduring questions. Based on Giacomo Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” the mammoth musical has enjoyed decades of success – as has Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s “Les Miserables.” Success aside, the questions remain: What is the “ultimate sacrifice” one human being can make for another? What are the moral parameters involved in making that sacrifice? Who is a Broadway show for? Is a production “for” the audience or “for” the actors and creative team? Why are some Broadway shows more controversial than others? What makes a Broadway show controversial? Should such controversy – legitimate as it might be – overshadow a show’s important themes?

Ongoing controversies surrounding “Miss Saigon” involve orientalism, misogyny, racism, casting controversies, and patronization. Despite these concerns, the theme of ultimate sacrifice remains significant and gives the musical relevance. And, of course, there is the helicopter.

Yes, the helicopter has once again landed on the stage of the Broadway Theater in the new production of the mega musical – the first revival in twenty-six years since the musical’s first controversial arrival in 1991. The discord that plagued the opening almost three decades ago involved the less than diverse cast. Anglo actors were hired to portray Asian characters instead of enlisting actors from the significant pool of qualified Asian performers available to producers. In general, it appears diversity has begun to propagate the stage as has more non-traditional casting; therefore, it is important to acknowledge the more appropriate casting of this “Miss Saigon.” Although not in the category of the controversial, this 1991 operatic pop version of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” did launch Lea Salonga into theatrical stardom. Enough of history: on to the revival.

This latest incarnation, also produced by Cameron Mackintosh, is a bit grittier, but is still charged with enough theatrical panache to satisfy the tourist trade and live up to the hype of its predecessor. Although it offers no new initiative or perspective on the East meets West theme, what it does manage to provide is a mnemonic of the atrocities of war, the irresponsible behavior of the powerful, and the insensitivity toward different races and cultures. Director Laurence Connor stays on course, but occasionally lapses into derivative scenarios, like the lover’s balcony scene, the plight of fleeing immigrants, or the night in Bangkok. The result is a mediocre production, waffling between dirty and gritty, and polished and sensational, never committing to either.

What is a good reason for this revival is the discovery of Eva Noblezada who brings her endless vocal range to Kim. Ms. Noblezada’s performance is charged with emotion, whether kindling a pure, young innocent romantic or a mature, angry protective mother emitting the guttural tones of survival. Ms. Noblezada is the story and the dramatic arc, always growing, developing, and pushing forward to a decisive conclusion. In the pivotal role of The Engineer, Jon Jon Briones is entertaining, relying on vulgar physical movement and gyrations to define his character rather than trusting his intellect and emotional core. Perhaps this is intentional given the superficial content of “The American Dream.” Alistair Brammer brings an all-American look to the role of Chris but seems a bit too kinetic and neurotic, which makes the character confusing, sometimes incredible and escalating situations to melodrama. This possibly could be a directorial decision, since it occurs repeatedly under different circumstances.

It was a gift to see a large cast in this epic musical (more actors need to be employed), and they perform their roles with energy and commitment, always focused and supportive with their dance and vocals. The sound of the eighteen-piece orchestra conducted by James Moore was a pleasure. The important sound design by Mick Potter is clear and realistic and compliments the eclectic mood inducing lighting design of Bruno Poet. Choreography and musical staging by Bob Avian is sufficient but could be more inventive, depending too much on vulgarity rather than raw seduction and sexuality.