The helicopter still takes flight. Everything else crashes and burns. If a two-sentence appraisal of Miss Saigon would suffice, I could end this review right there. But the behemoth megamusical, now at the Academy of Music on its national tour, requires more consideration.
The production itself doesn’t. Directed to bloated excess by Laurence Connor, it resembles an animatronic amusement-park attraction—the sights garish, the performers anonymous and interchangeable. Like most musical productions these days, it aurally assaults the audience with overamplification. Luckily, this becomes a blessing of sorts: if you could understand the lyrics, you’d cringe.
You’ll still cringe at the parade of Orientalist tropes filling the stage. Although Asian and Pacific Islander (API) representation on stage still lags, a lot has changed in the theater world since Miss Saigon debuted in 1989. Now more than ever, it feels like a relic of a bygone era—and a work best left in the past.
Vital API voices
Just a year before Miss Saigon’s debut, David Henry Hwang became the first writer of API descent to have a play produced on Broadway. To date, his M. Butterfly remains the only work by an Asian American to win a Tony for Best Play. (It considers many of the same themes of exoticized Western views of Eastern cultures as Miss Saigon, but through a very different lens.) In the late 1980s, pioneering theater troupes like the National Asian-American Theatre Company, Ma-Yi Theatre Company, and Silk Road Rising didn’t yet exist.
A host of vital voices joined the theatrical conversation in the ensuing three decades—playwrights, directors, actors, and designers who ground their work in lived experience and cultural history. These works—like Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone or Chay Yew’s A Language of Their Own, to name just two—prove the emptiness of Miss Saigon, with its one-dimensional, stereotypical characters and trivialized messaging.
Nothing presented in the musical was new when it first arrived on the scene—composers Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil lifted heavily from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly to construct the story of Kim (Emily Bautista in this tour), a poor Vietnamese girl who falls tragically in love with American soldier Chris (Anthony Festa here). That two French composers wrote a tin-eared, colonialist musical about Vietnam is an irony not lost on me.
Madama Butterfly is certainly a problematic work in many ways, but at least Puccini showed a real fascination with Japanese musical structures, which he embedded in his gorgeously textured score. In contrast, Schönberg merely throws a mandolin and some Asian flutes into the orchestrations without giving any real thought to how the Eastern and Western sound worlds should meld together. The use of traditional instruments feels opportunistic rather than integral.
The self-sacrificing woman
The same can be said for the portrayal of Kim—who, in her first scene, sings that she has “a heart like the sea / So many dreams are in me.” We never learn those dreams, given how quickly they’re consumed by her all-encompassing love for Chris. After he ditches her for a white wife in America, she transfers all her love to Tam, the child they conceived on their first and only night together. “I swear I’ll give my life for you,” she sings to the boy at the end of the first act.
Rather than focusing on a story of survivorship and perseverance—after all, Kim escapes the massacre that kills her family and keeps herself and her child safe in the wake of Saigon’s fall—we instead get the familiar tale of a self-sacrificing woman whose value can only be quantified by her relationship with a man or a child. But at least she gets a semblance of a story, unlike the other women of color onstage, who are presented as faceless go-go girls begging soldiers to take them as war brides.
Stereotyping isn’t reserved for the women. The two primary Vietnamese male characters are both cartoonish scoundrels. The Engineer (Red Concepción) sells flesh and fantasy to the highest bidder, a willing servant of ruthless capitalism and self-interest. In this production, the Engineer caps his eleven-o’clock number “The American Dream” by dry-humping a Cadillac.
Likewise, Kim’s former fiancé Thuy (Jinwoo Jung) rises within the Communist ranks after the war and uses his power to force her hand in marriage. He proclaims his love, calls her a whore, and tries to kill her child within a matter of minutes. We are meant to understand that Kim is just a prize to him—something he was promised, which he’ll take by force if necessary.
The creators—who also include Richard Maltby Jr., who provided additional English lyrics—reserve all their sympathy for the white characters. Chris gets to be a hero because he kind of feels bad about leading Kim on. His ruthless Army colleague John (J. Daughtry) also undergoes a miraculous conversion after returning stateside, dedicating himself to the plight of the bụi đời (a term that, after Miss Saigon’s debut, came to be used popularly in the US to describe the mixed-race children of American men and Vietnamese women).
“They are the living reminder of all the good we failed to do,” John sings of them, literally moments after referring to them as “half-breeds.” Miss Saigon too is a living reminder—of a darker chapter in theater history, one that needn’t be revisited.
What, When, Where
Miss Saigon. By Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Richard Maltby Jr. Directed by Laurence Connor. Broadway Philadelphia. Through March 31, 2019, at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org.
The Academy of Music is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Wheelchair-accessible seats or upholstered, loose chairs are available for purchase online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999/(215) 893-1999 TTY, or emailing [email protected]. There will be an audio-described and captioned performance of Miss Saigon on March 29, 2019, at 8pm.