By: Kevin Rolfe
*This review contains mild spoilers. The main reveals in the show won’t be divulged but if you want to go into the production without knowing anything, please read this review once you’ve seen Miss Saigon.*
The New National Tour of Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of Boublil and Schönberg’s (Les Misérables) musical, Miss Saigon made its Utah premiere last night (Oct. 15) at the beautiful Eccles Theater in downtown Salt Lake City. When the Eccles Theater was being discussed and then constructed one of the reasons for building the theater was to be able to house some of the larger scale musicals that the newly renovated Capitol Theater is unable to fit on its 106 year old stage. Miss Saigon is definitely a large scale musical, both with a 42 person cast and a set design that takes every bit of the stage.
If you’re unfamiliar with Miss Saigon here is a brief synopsis from the production’s press release.
“MISS SAIGON tells the story of a young Vietnamese woman named Kim, who is orphaned by war and forced to work in a bar run by a notorious character known as the Engineer. There she meets and falls in love with an American G.I. named Chris, but they are torn apart by the fall of Saigon. For 3 years, Kim goes on an epic journey of survival to find her way back to Chris, who has no idea he's fathered a son. This new production features stunning spectacle and a sensational cast of 42 performing the soaring score, including Broadway hits like “The Heat is On in Saigon,” “The Movie in My Mind,” “Last Night of the World” and “American Dream.”
My relationship with Miss Saigon goes back over twenty years. I first saw the production back in 1996 in Southern California. I saw the tour over the years a few other times along with a couple of regional theater productions (which were actually quite good!). This has been one of my favorite musicals since I learned of it and I have been excited to see the revival since it debuted in London in 2014. Overall I loved this production, but it’s not without its issues.
Going into this performance I constantly reminded myself that this was a revival of Miss Saigon so there might be some things that are different from the original. I was actually excited to see what was different from the original production because the last couple of times I saw the tour things had become a little stale. I knew it would be impossible to not compare the revival with the original production but I did my best to keep an open mind. This isn’t going to be a full review of comparing and contrasting the revival and the original production. But I will mention a couple of differences I liked and didn’t like. For the most part, I want to review this performance on its own merits. This was an amazing, heart wrenching, eye-popping, and audibly satisfying show of its own accord.
I have to applaud this company. The cast of this show was strong from top to bottom. Isn’t it the worst when you see a musical, especially one of your favorites, and there is that one lead that just isn’t doing it for you? Maybe it’s their voice, or maybe it’s their acting, but you just can’t help but be disappointed. This was not the case here. I enjoyed how deeply talented this cast was vocally and the natural business they did on the stage. In particular, I was very impressed with the leads. You rarely get this fortunate to have a tour with every principle role this excellent.
Emily Bautista, who played the role of Kim was probably my favorite Kim I have ever seen. Joining the tour from the Broadway production Bautista met the demands of the role with the grace, power, and dignity that the role of Kim calls for. Kim is the character we’re the most invested in. We are following her journey. So it’s important that whoever is playing Kim delivers so that we are willing to invest our emotions and feel for her and with her as she goes through heartbreak after heartbreak. I thought Bautista did this exceptionally well. Her voice soared throughout the Delta Performance Hall and it was difficult to not get emotional at the sheer beauty of her voice. I was right there with her. In Saigon, at the US Embassy, and in Bankok. I felt her pain and her joy in each scene. I really enjoyed her performance. Short of seeing original Kim, Lea Salonga, I can’t imagine it gets much better than seeing Emily Bautista as Kim.
I think Chris is the most difficult role in Miss Saigon. He’s just kind of there. It doesn’t seem like the actor has much to work with. He seems mostly there to facilitates Kim’s story but really he has a deep and heavy story of his own. When I mention that there is usually one actor that I don’t love in a production, when it’s Miss Saigon, it’s usually the guy playing Chris. The actor is either invisible or he overacts. I thought Anthony Festa did this role justice. He found the spots in this show to develop the character so that we care about what he’s gone through as much as Kim. He found the moments to serve his other actors and then allow Chris to stand out where I really felt for him and the difficulty of being a Vietnam War veteran.
The role of Ellen is another challenging role in this story. She’s not in much of the show, but when she is she can either get lost in the mix or have a major impact on the story. I loved Ellie Fishman’s performance as Ellen. The way this show plays out, you’re not really rooting for Ellen. In fact, you’re pretty disappointed she exists. But the way Fishman performs this role, you feel for her and the extremely awkward and difficult position she’s in. In past productions, I never really felt this for Ellen. I’m not sure if that’s just the tone the revival has put in place for this character, but regardless, Fishman pulls it off in a genuine and honest way.
J. Daughtry is the best John I have ever seen in person. His vocals totally blew me away! Seriously, just, Wow. The believable, almost palpable passion was there when he sang “Bui Doi” to begin the second act. It’s one of the best songs in the entire production, but when it’s done right it becomes the most memorable. Daughtry acted the role of John really well too. Almost too well. Here’s what I mean. The beginning of Mis Saigon takes place at a bar where the waitresses are vying for the attention of American G.I.’s so they’ll take them to their beds in hopes of being taken to America. At this point, John is clearly jaded by the darkness of war and remaining in Vietnam after the war is over. John is mean, violent, and his moral compass is way off. J. Daughtry plays this part so believably well that when the second act comes along and John is now compassionately running an organization that connects Vietnamese children with their Vietnam Vet fathers, it takes a moment to get there with him. Daughtry plays both versions of John really well, it just took me a while to forget how intense he was in Act 1.
The Engineer in this production was probably the most challenging for me to wrap my head around. Again, I’m not sure if this was a character choice by Red Concepción who played the role of The Engineer, or if this was the way the revival was directed. I felt like this take on The Engineer was much darker than I had ever seen in the past. Yes, we know he’s not a good person and has selfish ambitions to the detriment of others for the entire musical. But in the past, The Engineer has been a point of levity in an otherwise very dark and heartbreaking story. So while he’s the quintessential anti-hero, in some way we are endeared to him and hope his ambition of getting to America is met. In this production, I didn’t quite feel that. When we get to The Engineers climax in the show, “The American Dream”, I couldn’t help but feel like “Why do we want him to succeed again?” Thus causing an otherwise major song in the production to fall a little flat for me. Don’t get me wrong, Concepción acted the role of The Engineer fantastically. I was drawn in whenever he was on the stage. I just wasn’t sure when I was going to find a way to like The Engineer, and ultimately I didn’t.
This was a sticking point throughout the show. Subtle changes lead Miss Saigon to be even darker than it had previously been. And it was pretty dark. It’s a gut-wrenching story. There is darkness in abundance. It feels like the revival leans a little too hard into that. Another example of this is in the opening, “The Heat is on in Saigon” and the Act 2 scene in Bankok. The waitresses are also prostitutes, we get it. I’m not a prude. It just felt a little gratuitous at times and took away from what was going on. Kim is at center stage meeting the love of her life in Chris while off to the side a waitress is grinding a G.I. It’s just not needed as much as they think it is. I felt the same way in the original production.
Speaking of the Bankok scene. I couldn’t decide if I was going to mention this, but I’m typing so I guess I am. There’s a scene on the streets of Bankok where The Engineer is now working and trying to lure tourists into the club he works. There’s temptation of every kind to tantalize any lonely traveling businessman. Then appears a Mormon missionary attempting to share his message. Yes, one Mormon missionary. So it’s already kind of lame. He is tempted throughout the song and ultimately gives in to the debauchery. I’m guessing it’s meant to be comic relief for the Utah audience. I can’t imagine this takes place on the rest of the tour. If it’s always in the production, it sticks out like a sore thumb as totally pointless. This didn’t offend me as a Utah resident or someone surrounded by Mormon culture, it just felt desperate for a cheap laugh. It was overacted, distracting, and the big laughs they were hoping for were mild at best. We don’t need to be pandered to in Utah. Whether people in the audience were Mormon or not, I can’t imagine we were more interested in this scene because something from the Utah culture showed up on stage. It reminded me of being in community or college or even community college theater. A common thing that happens at that level is to pull off some kind of closing night prank; whether it be saying a line that makes the cast laugh, or breaking character to get a cheap laugh or wearing something different on stage as an inside joke. The director of these lower-level productions always gives the speech that the show is not about us, it’s about serving the crowd and the closing night audience deserves the same as the rest of the run. Then heavily advising to not do any pranks. That’s what this felt like. In an otherwise exceptional performance, this bit of business was not only in poor taste, it was also totally unnecessary. I hope they remove it from the rest of the Utah performances.
While the revival is much darker than I remember the original production being, I still found myself entranced with the show. I could feel my heart racing when they were at the US Embassy. I felt fearful when Thuy, the cousin Kim was promised to as a child returns. I found myself smiling when Kim was in Chris’ embrace. I felt that boulder-sized lump in my throat when the show comes to its ultimate conclusion. This is a really good production. The show is evenly paced. The first act is an hour and a half and when the curtain dropped for intermission I was shocked at how fast the first act went. The sets are incredible! The US Embassy scene still holds up visually and emotionally. The subtle choreography adds so much to the show.
Sometimes when shows have been around for so long or are so well known, expectations are made, or people have grown tired of the show and have moved on to newer stylings of musical theater. But judging by the attendance, the applause, and the sniffling and stifled sobbing, Miss Saigon still has a major impact on the current musical theater fan. I encourage any fan of Miss Saigon or major musical theater fans to check out this production. It will be at the Eccles Theater until Sunday, October 20 with two shows on Saturday and Sunday.