This is what people mean when they talk about “a Broadway show” — melodic songs, big, beautiful voices, a huge ensemble, full-scale pit orchestra, sumptuous production numbers, and the spectacle of lavish sets and special effects. Something just like this big-time revival of the 1991 mega-hit “Miss Saigon,” by the same folks — Alain Boublil (book & lyrics) and Claude-Michel Schonberg (concept, book & music) — who brought “Les Miserables” to Broadway’s spectacle lovers.
Producer Cameron Mackintosh, the man behind the original production, backs this classy revitalization of an old, presumably boring property that proves to have plenty of life in it yet. The upscale revival should bring a tear to old-timers with romantic memories of the original schmaltzy score, while titillating newbies who were toddlers in the early 90s, when Bush was in the White House, women were wearing big-shouldered power suits, and excess was the name of the game, on Broadway as much as on Wall Street.
The meticulous mounting is by Laurence Connor, who directed “School of Rock” on Broadway as well as the recent revival of “Les Miserables.” The production values alone are a jaw-dropper. That iconic helicopter, rendered with unusual realism thanks to the miracles of modern technology, is still the show-stopper. But lesser miracles are still stunning.
A wood-slatted set (the team contribution of Totie Driver & Matt Kinley) bursts through the proscenium arch to represent a rough street scene of Saigon’s red-light district. Bruno Poet’s lurid lighting design uses red washes to capture the sleazy atmosphere of Dreamland, a bar-cum-brothel where a bar girl comes free with the first drink. (“The Movie in My Mind” is a surprisingly touching look into their hopeless dreams to escape to America as wives of their lusty Marine boyfriends.)
As the hot-blooded opening number (“The Heat Is On”) would have it, anything goes in the South Vietnamese capital in 1975. The war is about to implode, leaving the countryside in rubble and the city drowning in its own filth. “They say Saigon has weeks,” speculates the Engineer (Jon Jon Briones, flat-out brilliant), the vile but discerning pimp who runs Dreamland. “I say it’s time to pack.” And just wait for his big getaway in “The American Dream,” a show-stopper — and a career-maker for Briones.
That sense of impending doom as Saigon is about to fall adds an uneasy frisson to the “Madame Butterfly” plot line about the pure but ill-fated love between a young bar girl and an American soldier. With her family killed and her village burned to the ground, Kim (the entrancing Eva Noblezada, who won the role at the age of 17) is easy prey for the rapacious Engineer, who installs her at Dreamland, auctioning her off to the highest bidder.
“Men pay the moon to get fresh meat,” according to the odious Engineer, who pimps out Kim to an American Marine named Chris and played by Alistair Brammer (looks = 10, voice = 8, acting = 4). One night of pure love and Chris and Kim are madly in love.
Their special love song, “Sun and Moon,” is a melodious showcase for his sturdy tenor and for her delicate beauty and ethereal soprano. In her innocence, Kim invites her friends to celebrate their love (“The Wedding Ceremony”) in a tenderly staged ritual that Chris only belatedly realizes is his wedding.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum from Claude-Michel Schonberg’s aching love songs is “The Last Night of the World.” The famous “helicopter number,” to give it its visual, puts the masterful 18-piece orchestra (under conductor James Moore) through its paces for the dramatic fall of Saigon and the storming of the Embassy.
Bob Avian’s choreography is most alive when the teeming male chorus splits into opposing armies in “The Morning of the Dragon,” the martial musical number in which Ho Chi Minh’s army swoops down from the north and takes Saigon. Although the score is most notable for its melodic love duets, Avian’s original choreography and the later contributions of Geoffrey Garratt step lively during the military airs and marches.
With all this spectacle turning your head, it’s a wonder that one of the many bar girls, Rachelle Ann Go’s touching Gigi, makes a strong impression. Chris’s best friend, John, also makes his presence seen, heard, and known, in a strong performance by Nicholas Christopher. And Devin Ilaw is both pitiful and threatening as Thuy, Kim’s rejected suitor from her village.
It takes courage, after all, to take the stage with two opposing armies — not to mention a helicopter.