Miss Saigon, the 1989 musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Richard Maltby Jr., and Alain Boublil that did for helicopters what Phantom of the Opera did for chandeliers, is back, self-conscious bombast and orientalist clichés fully intact.
Though revamped for the 2017 Broadway revival, everything about Laurence Connor’s staging feels old-school, in a bad way. True, when you’re starting with Madama Butterfly as your narrative inspiration, melodramatic stereotypes of Asian women dying for love are perhaps unavoidable. At least this production avoids the “yellowface” controversy that plagued the original, when Jonathan Pryce—eyelid prosthetics and all—was cast as the Eurasian pimp known as the Engineer. (Red Concepción plays the role here, and he is magnetic in his moral turpitude.)
The Vietnamese characters function mostly as one-dimensional background. From the whores in the Engineer’s Saigon brothel, where American soldier Chris (Anthony Festa) meets virginal country girl Kim (Emily Bautista) right before the city falls, to the Viet Cong celebrating its capture, they’re tabula rasa for the Americans’ libidos, guilt, and fear. Even the actual images of “bui doi”—the interracial children of GIs, like Kim’s son Tam (Ryder Khatiwala), that we see at the top of the second act—feel like they’re there to serve the American-savior storyline.
If you like the music and the story, it’s perfectly serviceable—and the chopper is cool. But as Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone at Writers Theatre showed earlier this year, the actual stories of Vietnamese people are far more complex and compelling than all of Miss Saigon‘s showy vocal and visual histrionics can reveal. v