“It’s the musical with the helicopter,” I heard one attendee inform her unfamiliar guest prior to curtain at the Aronoff Center. Yes, ’90s Broadway juggernaut “Miss Saigon” is back and on the road, and this revised revival opened on Tuesday in Cincinnati for a two-week run. The musical is a fairly faithful adaptation of Puccini’s early 20th-century opera “Madame Butterfly” (read: it’s a tragedy), and borrows liberally from the source material: young Asian prostitute meets charming American serviceman, falls in love and sees a way out. Instead of turn of the century Nagasaki, Saigon transports the story to the eponymous Vietnamese city in the last days of the American occupation.
The presentation and production of this tour are unimpeachable. Emily Bautista is electrifying in the lead as Kim, a 17-year-old girl driven to prostitution at a bar called Dreamland after the destruction of her village. Red Concepción dazzles as the scheming pimp known as The Engineer, sleazy and always quick to find an angle to his advantage in any situation. Anthony Festa is strong as the yearning, good-hearted Chris, the American GI who falls in love with Kim and tries to get her out. J. Daughtry nearly steals the show as John, a friend of Chris’s who starts out coarse and rough, but upon his return to the U.S. starts a charity to help Vietnamese children fathered by American soldiers. The rest of the company is uniformly excellent, and ensemble numbers never fail to amaze (especially the post-war “The Morning of the Dragon,” anchored by jaw-dropping acrobatics).
One of this production’s greatest strengths is creating a moody, atmospheric Saigon onstage. The action is backdropped with hazy streetscapes, monolithic red sunsets, open balconies lit by the soft glow of pastel paper lanterns. The humidity is almost palpable, both suffocating and intimate, punctuated by Bruno Poet’s excellent lighting design. The chaotic lead-up to the fall of Saigon is staged masterfully, culminating in the arrival of the production’s trademark helicopter.
The history of “Miss Saigon” is pockmarked by controversy. The musical opened in 1989 as Schönberg and Boublil’s blockbuster follow-up to “Les Misérables,” but featured white actors playing Asian characters riddled with stereotypes and gibberish substituted for Vietnamese dialogue. These have been corrected by this new production. To its great credit, “Miss Saigon” grapples with America’s complicated legacy in Vietnam, and it does frame violence against women and the debasement and destruction of their bodies in a negative light. Why, then, does it revel in depicting it so graphically throughout the entire length of the show? Why are its insults and epithets against women’s bodies still played for laughs? Why is the only female character with any agency a blonde American? In spite of revision, “Miss Saigon’s” most egregious colonialist and misogynist failings reside deep in its bones. It’s frustrating to walk out of the theater after such an outstanding performance with a bitter taste.
Nat Tracey-Miller is a Cincinnati-based school librarian, musician and cartophile whose love spans from Bowie to Beethoven to B.I.G. to Brubeck and hits every point in between. His writing has appeared in CincyMusic, Columbus Calling, Tome to the Weather Machine, Mixtape Methodology, and more. He records and performs locally with The Birds of America and ITAM.