Auditorium Theatre

Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg, and Cameron Mackintosh sure have canny timing. Their previous collaboration, Les Miserables, epitomized the phony populism of the Reagan-Thatcher era: a lavish entertainment that preached sympathy for the poor, and a hypocritical celebration of the revolutionary impulse that actually drove home a counterrevolutionary message (the student rebellion it depicted was a disastrous failure). It was rock opera for the rich, no threat to anyone.

Now, as it finally begins to dawn on the public that the era of excess has to be paid for, French songwriters Boublil and Schonberg and British producer Mackintosh are on hand with an appropriate musical-theater guilt trip. Centering on a love story whose ill-starred protagonists symbolize the failure and lingering tragedy of America’s Vietnam adventure, the Boublil-Schonberg-Mackintosh hit Miss Saigon seems especially timely in light of the political revival of a controversy that’s a generation old. (If George Bush is troubled by Americans demonstrating against the war on foreign soil, I wonder what he thinks of foreigners criticizing the war on American soil and making a mint in the process.)

Beyond the specifics of Vietnam, the theme of Miss Saigon is corruption American style: the central character, a Eurasian pimp called the Engineer, sings about the “American dream” as a venal, greedy, reckless self-indulgence thrust on the world by America’s corporate conquerors. (Dig the Cadillac car and Pepsi and Playboy logos during the Engineer’s big number.) And the audience is invited both to laugh at the cynicism of that vision and to reflect on how sleazy and self-destructive the American dream has indeed become. Unabashedly aimed at the most affluent element of the theatergoing public, Miss Saigon offers a nice moral lesson–at $60 per prime seat (and who would want anything less if they could afford it?).

This being a Boublil-Schonberg-Mackintosh musical, Miss Saigon also has a child–a tiny, tear-jerking innocent abused by a cruel and callous world. Some songwriters write new wave; Boublil and Schonberg’s specialty is new waif. Les Miz had a brave little boy shot down at the barricades; Miss Saigon features a whole slew of kids left behind with their Vietnamese mothers by their GI fathers. Schonberg says the show was inspired by a magazine photo of one such kid (reprinted in the glossy $8 souvenir program). Seen in a documentary film at the start of act two, these little mixed-race bui-doi (“dust of life”) are heartbreakers; and the song that’s passionately sung about them is stirring and touching. Still, I think I would have been stirred and touched somewhat more deeply if I hadn’t remembered the $11 million reportedly spent on the production, or the $12.7 million in advance tickets sold.

Oh, well, that’s pop opera. And as the latest of its oversize genre to come to town, Miss Saigon is also without a doubt the best. It’s shallow and mercenary, but it’s more accessible than Les Miz, say–or Cats, God knows, or The Phantom of the Opera, all shows foisted upon us by Mackintosh, the wunderkind producer whose knack for grand gesture and distinctive detail is once again evident here.

Miss Saigon is free of many of its predecessors’ faults–in particular, the pomposity and meandering lethargy that dragged down Les Miz. I suspect part of the reason is that director Nicholas Hytner is better at keeping things moving than Trevor Nunn, who staged Cats and Les Miz. Nunn seemed hooked on spectacle for its own sake, while Hytner understands that opera’s extra-large scale must not swamp the human beings whose story we’re watching. A grand march by a masked militia celebrating the reunification of Vietnam, complete with a towering statue of Ho Chi Minh, and a scene depicting the red-light nightlife of Saigon and Bangkok not only swamp the audience in spectacle but move the story forward, even if they borrow too obviously from the Bob Fosse canon. (The Engineer is a Vietnamese version of Cabaret’s emcee; his big production number, “The American Dream,” is a choreographically inferior reworking of “Money” from the film Cabaret, and the bar girls’ garishly lit sexual posturing owes a clear debt to both Sweet Charity and Chicago.)

Another important factor, I think, in this show’s success is that the source material is better suited to the theater–instead of the sprawling novel used for Les Miz, Boublil and Schonberg worked from a property that had already proved its stageworthiness, first as a play by David Belasco and then as a grand opera by Giacomo Puccini. Miss Saigon follows the plot of Madama Butterfly like a road map, which is fine, since Butterfly is certainly suited to the indictment of American exploitation of other cultures Boublil and Schonberg had in mind. The earlier opera’s story–about a Japanese geisha who marries an American military man, is deserted by him, bears his son, and then kills herself when he returns to claim the child but not her–is lifted pretty much intact: Butterfly has become Kim, a Saigon hooker, while the ruthless American officer Pinkerton is now Chris, a disillusioned GI whose infatuation with Kim gives him a new lease on life amid the hellish failures of the Vietnam war but who destroys her despite his good intentions.

Also improved since Les Miz is composer Schonberg’s sense of dramatic pacing. Though none of his music here is as good as the high points of that show (songs such as “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables”), Miss Saigon as a whole moves better musically and has more variety (the ersatz Asian flourishes and bluesy riffs the story allows for add dimensions missing from Les Miz’s 19th-century soupiness). Boublil’s lyrics are weaker this time around–there’s precious little subtext, and an overdose of rock-opera preachiness–but I suppose one could argue that his reliance on cliches and simplistic images fits the characters’ baseness.

Visually stunning and technically state-of-the-art, Miss Saigon reunites the Cats/Les Miz team of lighting designer David Hersey and scenic designer John Napier. Their work is both elaborate and tasteful–Hytner’s directorial guidance was surely a factor–and Hersey’s lighting is especially beautiful, charting the shifting moods of optimism and despair as well as changes in time and season. Andrew Bruce’s sound design keeps the lyrics crisp and clear over the lush yet sharp-edged orchestra conducted by Kevin Stites.

Hytner and Mackintosh have assembled a solid if not star-quality cast. They lack a lead with the charisma of Jonathan Pryce, who created the role of the Engineer (they save the big guys for Broadway and London, the better to woo the tourists). Filipino actor Raul Aranas is forceful but doesn’t have the serpentine sleaze needed to fulfill the Engineer’s larger-than-life aspirations. In the fairly thankless role of Kim, who suffers from many of the sexual and cultural stereotypes that afflict her Butterfly prototype (how could any woman who’s lived through the horrors she has still cling to such naive hopes?), Jennie Kwan displays a pretty face and voice, though she rarely suggests more than one emotion at a time (not that the lyrics help). The evening’s honors belong to Jarrod Emick, a beefy, burly Chris with a beautiful pop tenor–ballsy on the bottom, poignantly pinched on the top, with just the right hint of a cry in the throat. Able support comes from Keith Byron Kirk as Chris’s buddy John, who sings the anthem “Bui-Doi” at the opening of act two, and from Christiane Noll as Chris’s American wife, whose sympathy for Kim wars convincingly with her determination to keep Chris for herself. The chorus is first-rate. And as Kim and Chris’s bui-doi baby, Ric Gregory Guerrero is properly plucky yet pathetic, a new waif worthy of the Les Miz legacy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Le Poer Trench/Joan Marcus.