I have to admit two things. First, I’ve never seen Madame Butterfly. Secondly, until catching this production, I had never seen Miss Saigon, which is essentially Puccini’s opera set in war-ravaged Vietnam in the mid-1970s. Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boublil (Les Misérables) wrote it with Richard Maltby, Jr., who is also credited with lyrics and additional material.
Soldiers Chris (Kevin Odekirk) and John (Lawrence Cummings) are having fun pursuing girls at the Miss Saigon contest, a glorified way for the Engineer (Joseph Anthony Foronda) to get higher prices for his “girls.” Chris and Kim (Jacqueline Nguyen), one of the Engineer’s new girls, fall in love, and although Chris leaves her behind in the fall of Saigon, their affair results in a child. Chris has no idea about Kim’s pregnancy until the second act. That’s when their child becomes the Engineer’s potential meal ticket to America.
Miss Saigon is best known as the show with the helicopter. Director Brian Kite was wise to include one in this production and, strangely, it got a round of applause from the audience. The reason this show is known for the chopper is it isn’t very good. Composer Claude-Michel Schonberg hasn’t found a ballad he doesn’t like—this show is full of them. Three hours worth!
A flashback in the second act is horribly misplaced. In act one we jump from April 1975 to April 1978, when Saigon has become Ho Chi Minh City. But we don’t see how Chris and Kim’s relationship ends until “Kim’s Nightmare” in the second act. That abrupt shift in time means we don’t see their separation until we’re past the point of caring why or how it happened.
Ms. Nguyen almost makes us feel for Kim. She gives a rich and beautiful performance. It’s too bad she’s working opposite such a cardboard and lifeless Chris. Mr. Odekirk generates no heat in his scenes with her and leaves us to imagine the bond these two characters have created. Mr. Foronda is just menacing enough to play the all-too-obviously named Engineer, but he lacks the charm that would make his character seductive. Mr. Cummings has a beautiful voice. The second act opens with the song “Bui-Doi” and is performed a cappella by the males and sounded amazing. When Mr. Cummings joined it became the best moment in the show.
I would love to tell you about the musicians in this production, but nowhere does the program list anything about them. I can tell you that the sound from the pit was annoyingly thin. Whether you like Mr. Schonberg’s music or not, it isn’t without a richness that was sadly not on display here.
It is too bad that from such beloved source material as Madame Butterfly comes this mess of a show. The heat was off in Miss Saigon.
Photograph by Michael Lamont