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Miss Saigonwill never be a better musical than it was on Broadway in 1991, as watched by hopelessly romantic, pre-9/11 teenage girls. Oh, to once again be frightened by that helicopter hovering over the stage, and to sway along as a lovestruck Lea Salonga sings “The Last Night of the World.”
And then came college, and Tim O’Brien novels, seminars in postcolonial criticism, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For many educated Americans who saw Miss Saigon in the 1990s, it’s now impossible to watch this story about lovers torn apart by the Vietnam War through the same wonderstruck eyes.
And yet that’s what Signature Theatre would like you to do. The Arlington troupe is opening its season with a scaled-down version of this musical by the French duo that created Les Misérables. Signature has successfully produced several blockbuster musicals in its intimate space, including Hairspray, Dreamgirls, and Les Mis. But in Miss Saigon, the across-the-board quality—in acting, singing, and technical effects—falls short of what we’ve come to expect, which makes the play’s sociopolitical knottiness that much more problematic.
Miss Saigon is an update of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Both involve an American serviceman who knocks up a powerless Asian woman and abandons her, even though she loves him to the last song. In the 19th century, that trope passed for tragedy. In the 21st, it smacks of irresponsible imperialism, despite Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s attempt to romanticize wartime folly.
The Quang Ngai-set design starts in the vestibule, where ushers maneuver between airplane fuselages. Inside the theater, tarps dangle from the lighting grids and there’s a pulsing drone of bugs and whirlybirds. (Adam Koch and Matt Rowe designed the sets and sound, respectively.) The opening scene is a steamy stunner. “The heat is on in Saigon,” sing the employees and clientele of a brothel, preparing to celebrate a night of booze-fueled relief.
Director Eric Schaeffer clearly went looking for Asian-American triple threats who could sing, act, and pole dance. Choreographer Karma Kamp exploits the female performers’ ballet training to precise effect: One woman extends a leg over a guy’s shoulder while another repeatedly pliés to spoon with an appreciative soldier. Their voices are supple too, capable of both bitchy belting and bridal lullabies.
The men, by comparison, should head back to basic training. Signature has a corps of solid local musical-theater actors, but few of them make convincing Marines. Their harmonies are also off and scratchy, a problem amplified by poorly mixed sound. The orchestra and singers are often too loud, and both seem to be pumped through centralized speakers, rendering ineffective the scenes where actors come marching in from the wings. (The only time pure volume works? When clavicle-rumbling effects stand in for a helicopter during Act 2.)
As the fresh-from-the-countryside call girl, Diana Huey is overly earnest. Kim may be young and naïve, but the actress playing her should dig her teeth into refrains like, “I swear, I’d give my life for you.” Gannon O’Brien has the opposite problem as Chris, the uncharismatic wartime paramour, though to be fair, he’s an understudy who stepped into the role on short notice.
Thank goodness for Thom Sesma, who plays “the Engineer,” a half-French, half-Vietnamese pimp. He’s a complex antagonist, and Sesma’s canny portrayal is the best here. In a small theater, it’s easier to appreciate his clever asides. “What can I say, you get me, for a small extra fee?” he sings with a shrug.
There’s scarcely any spoken dialogue in Saigon, and the vocal lines are full of tricky leaps. (Both Huey and Erin Driscoll, who plays Chris’ wife Ellen, have weak lower ranges.) The 15 musicians deliver a better performance then the singers as they deploy orchestrations which—especially for the flutes and percussion—are a complex mix of East meets West. But the characters are overly simplistic.
We are twice as far removed from the Vietnam War as we were when Miss Saigon premiered in London. Many more artists have addressed the conflict aided by distance and nuance, yet on the strength of its melodies, Miss Saigon has been airlifted into the musical theater canon. Any company that wants to stage the show should do it well, do it with sensitivity, and do it with an emphasis on the historical context. Like evacuating Saigon at the 11th hour, it’s an effort fraught with peril.