Friday, November 23, 2018

Love and War: Stellar, Somewhat Downsized 'Miss Saigon' is Sumptuously Sung but Shows Its Soft Spots -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Miss Saigon
National Tour
directed by Laurence Connor
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru December 8

Once upon a time, in the recesses of my mind, Miss Saigon was third.

Not the third best stage musical of all-time, but in terms of chronology and preeminence, the third mammoth West End (London) then Broadway (New York) blockbuster production that--for quite awhile--dominated the musical theater landscape, including on tour.

Though shows like Evita, Sweeney Todd and Cats were pretty huge in terms of size, scope, grandeur, greatness and success, Les Misérables (1985 London/1987 NYC), The Phantom of the Opera ('86/'88) and Miss Saigon ('89/'91) seemingly took things to a whole new level.

Andrew Lloyd Webber composed Evita, Cats and Phantom, while Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (music & lyrics, respectively) were the primary creators of both Les Mis and Miss Saigon.

So the types of blockbusters brought to Hollywood in the 1970s and early '80s by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were somewhat echoed on Broadway a few years later.

Or, in terms of threesomes, the Beatles, Stones and Who?--which is actually both question and answer--of musical theater were, at least commercially, Les Miz, Phantom and Miss Saigon.

But while The Phantom of the Opera continues its original West End and Broadway runs--with well over 12,000 performances in each locale--and Les Miserables has never closed in London and initially lasted 16 years in New York before closure and subsequent revivals, Miss Saigon lasted "only" 10 years and 4,000+ performances in each theatrical mecca.

It also hasn't toured nearly as much, particularly in the new millennium.

I'm glad to have seen a full-scale, full-sized-helicopter-on-stage production at Chicago's Auditorium Theater in 2000--when I was still rather newly getting into theatergoing with regularity--but until Tuesday night, had only otherwise seen a regional production at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, IL.

And while a double-CD of the Original London Cast Recording has remained a notable part of my collection of Broadway albums, I perceive that intervening huge hit musicals such as Rent, The Lion King, The Producers, Mamma Mia, Hairspray, Wicked, Jersey Boys, Billy Elliot, Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots, Beautiful and Hamilton have rendered Miss Saigon considerably less top of mind.

And though its original production scale might really outrank almost anything--its national tours used to require 17 trucks--thinking of it as "third" feels rather anachronistic.

But in recent years, mega musical producer Cameron Macintosh enlisted director Laurence Connor to oversee somewhat more modestly-scaled yet still enormously impressive stagings of Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera while retaining their magic--though I love the former show far more than the latter--so I was truly excited to the Connor-concocted take on Miss Saigon.

I obviously wasn't the only one, as in its second of just four weeks in Chicago--where it once ran for nearly a year--the Cadillac Palace was packed.

Thankfully, from the very last row of the upper balcony, I had binoculars.

And even from there my sense of hearing was well-dazzled, as the singing throughout this production is exquisite.

Before citing Miss Saigon's storyline, songs, current cast, etc., I should mention that the narrative is based on Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly, and--per Wikipedia--"similarly tells the tragic tale of a doomed romance involving an Asian woman abandoned by her American lover."

Though I've seen the source opera, more than once, I don't recall its specifics enough to reference how acutely it may have influenced Miss Saigon or how the musical varied.

On a somewhat similar level, Mackintosh brought in Chicago composer/lyricist/actor Michael Mahler to freshen up some of the original lyrics--credited to Boublil and Roger Maltby Jr.--but I can't specify anything that changed.

But Miss Saigon remains an impressive, moving and largely terrific musical, focusing on an American GI named Chris (Anthony Festa) who falls in love with a young Vietnamese woman, Kim (Emily Bautista) on the cusp of the fall of Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City).

They meet at a nightclub-cum-brothel called Dream Land, run by and entrepreneur-cum-pimp known as the Engineer (Red Concepcion), but as the Vietnam War comes to a combustible conclusion, let's just say it tears them apart.

So the show's setting is split between 1975 and 1978, as all three main characters--plus Chris' soldier pal, John (J. Daughtry)--have somewhat moved forward, albeit with strong ties, emotional and otherwise. 

Most demonstrably, the singing from everyone in this production is outstanding, including Festa & Bautista on several Chris/Kim duets, each of them individually--"Why God Why" notably by him; "I'd Give My Life for You" by her--and by Christine Bunuan, heading up "The Movie in My Mind" as a call girl named Gigi.

There are several other fine songs including the touching and informative "Bui Doi" led by Daughtry as John, and among much fine staging and choreography by Bob Avian, a fantastic Act II production number, "The American Dream," that Concepcion "engineers" fantastically.

But this viewing of Miss Saigon didn't consistently wow me as much as I hoped, certainly not as much as Hamilton--which I saw for the third time earlier this month--nor Boublil and Schönberg far superior Les Misérables. 

There are times when the music drags and the storyline lags, and though it isn't comparatively an excessively long musical, the first act especially feels like it keeps going and going.

Some of its "pure entertainment" shortages are understandable given the rather grave narrative, but though I was glad to see it yet again--and excited when a helicopter did appear above the stage--for me Miss Saigon didn't achieve maximum elevation, in the realm of all-time great musicals.

And while it may qualitatively compare with The Phantom of the Opera if not Les Miz, thoughts of it as third in a venerated trio mostly harken to another time and place. 

1 comment:

Bryartist71585 said...

Great review, as always. But, the playbill image looks screwed somehow. Do you no longer have access to a scanner? There are some great high-quality scanners at the Chicago Public Library, F.Y.I.