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MISS SAIGON

Directed by Mitchell Lemsky
Starring Jon Jon Briones, Jennifer Hubilla, Alan Gillespie, and Mario Tadeo

After falling in love, a US marine and a Vietnamese woman are separated as the Americans leave her country in a hurry.

 

 

3 stars+

August 17th, 2003

 
    While the actors performed their roles admirably, especially with their strong voices, I didn't feel any emotional attachment to the main characters.

I don't know what the problem was. At the end of this production, the audience gave it a standing ovation. I was less enthusiastic. While I thought it was well-done, I also found that something was missing.

The songs were the high-point of the show, as they were belted out with such strong voices, that I was highly impressed by their abilities. Usually with musicals, I find that they ensemble pieces are the most impressive. That was not the case here. In this production, the ensembles couldn't be clearly understood. I looked forward more to the times when the soloists were at work.

The sets were impressive in what they were able to portray in such a small space, as always. I liked the lively bars, both in Saigon and in Bangkok. These were the main locations, where the lovers met, where they were betrothed, and where they were reunited (though the one in Bangkok was huge compared to the former). I like it when the set designers are able to move the sets around; in this case, to show us the inside and outside of the strip club, or of the gates to the US Embassy.

One of the most impressive aspects of the show was the helicopter that lands to take the Americans out of Vietnam. No, not a real helicopter, but it looked like a 3D hologram, projected on a screen at the back of the stage. I was less impressed by the video footage of the "half-breed" orphans at the beginning of the second act, because I thought it was a little too high-tech and not really necessary. But the helicopter, combined with the loud sounds, was really quite impressive. I am glad that it wasn't overused.

The story, at least in the first act, was strangely remote. Chris and Kim are thrust together for a night (and a price, at the strip club), fall in love, and promise to be together always, until the US withdraws from Vietnam and she is somehow left behind. There are so many unanswered questions, some of which are not even answered in the second act. Why was Chris so depressed? The war was over. Had he seen some buddies killed recently, or was it the "failure" of the war that depressed him? What was it that made them fall in love so quickly? Her beauty? He promised that he wouldn't fall in love, though she was tender and they tried to make love instead of just sex. Somehow, she bewitched him. She didn't seem to want to leave her home country before she met him, but she didn't question it afterwards.

The last thing that I didn't understand after the first act was how she was left behind if he was determined to take her with him. At least that one was answered in the second act, in the form of a flashback. I was pleased to see that he tried really hard, but events were out of his hands, and neither one of them could get through the gates.

The only part of the show that had real emotion for me was when Kim revealed that she had a son. That was the real reason she was holding out hope for Chris to return and bring her to the US. I could just feel the way Chris would be torn when he found out about his son, while being happily married to Ellen. I could also see Kim's solution once she found out about Chris' new wife. It was telegraphed well in advance, especially when she became suddenly calm, telling Tam that he would be going to the US. I was expecting the gunshot, but wondered how she would do it so that Tam wouldn't see her, or even realize what was happening. It worked very well as a scene-grabber, though I didn't think the show should have ended with that.

My favorite singer by far was Chris' friend John. He had such an amazing voice that I was completely mesmerized by everything he said. He was also in the unenviable position of finding and transplanting (or finding support) for the orphans of the Vietnam war -half American, half Vietnamese. He was the one who was to tell Kim that Chris was married.

There was a rather large sub-plot about the Engineer (the man who engineered the strip club, trying to get American GIs to fall in love with the women so that they could escape to the US). His main function was to try and get to the US, bribing and coercing the men to get him a visa. He failed to do so before the Americans left, but found a way out as far as Bangkok by the end, after finding Kim again three years later. His "American Dream" near the end was supposed to be his climax for the show, but I found it wearying. He was a good character, though, and well played. He had the most humor, which was good to see.

Another sub-plot played into Kim's life in Vietnam. She was betrothed by her parents to a Vietnamese man, who came looking for her when her parents died, and after her night with Chris. He took it hard when she rejected him, and when Vietnam was "rejoined", as an officer he found the Engineer and had him find Kim again. His strongest moment came when he found out about her son, and wanted to kill the boy. I could also see that gunshot coming from Kim's gun (formerly Chris' gun), because I knew she was strong enough to protect her child the way only mothers are. He had another strong scene which led up to her contemplating suicide, though. He told her, in a dream, that what she did would always be with her, and he was right. Even if she hated the man, could she tell Chris that she had killed him in cold blood, even if it was for saving their son? Chris would not have cared, but she couldn't live with his blood on her hands, not for very long.

So while the acting and singing was good, I could not pick out a favorite song. Nothing hit me the same way emotional songs have in other productions. Maybe that's why I didn't feel such an emotional punch. The story was good, but not great. I felt the second half brought more interest, though it, too, lagged in spots. The initial love story wasn't interesting enough for me.

Still, all around, this was a pretty good show.
 
   

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