I didn’t leave the Broadway Theatre with tears in my eyes after seeing Miss Saigon, the mega-musical revival by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Richard Maltby, Jr., and Alain Boublil. About five blocks from the theatre, it hit me, though, and the tears streamed down my face. All I could hear was the voice of Kim (Eva Noblezada), the parentless teenager forced into a life of prostitution during the Vietnam War…
“I’m seventeen, and I’m new here today.
The village I come from seems so far away.
All of these girls know much more what to say
But I know, I’m so much more than you see.
A million dreams are in me—”
When it originally opened on Broadway in 1991, the Vietnam War was still a not-too-distant memory. Now, nearly 40 years since its end, audiences may see Miss Saigon through a different lens, but one that is just as tainted by the atrocities happening throughout Syria and the Middle East and our own political turmoil on domestic land.
The revival, directed by Laurence Conner and musically staged and choreographed by Bob Avian, is the sweeping, dramatic, and anything-but-subtle journey of Kim’s quest for survival and the aftermath of her brief encounter with an American G.I. named Chris (Alistair Brammer).
The pair’s deep connection is cut short with the fall of Saigon when Chris is forced, along with his buddy John (Nicholas Christopher) and the remaining American troops, to evacuate. Kim is left behind under the sinister eye of the bar owner, otherwise known as The Engineer (Jon Jon Briones), to fend for herself against her cousin, Thuy (Devin Ilaw), to whom she was promised in marriage.
Years later, Chris is now married to Ellen (Katie Rose Clarke) and gets word that Kim is still alive, living in Thailand, and has born him a son, Tam. In an attempt to reconcile his past, Chris, along with Ellen and John, head to Bangkok to meet Kim. Upon discovering that Chris is married, Kim realizes that the dream of a life with him is a fantasy and that the only chance for her young son’s future in America is if she sacrifices herself. A fatal, self-inflicted gunshot wound ends her tragic journey—a stark symbol of the estimated two million civilian lives lost during the Vietnam War.
Reeling off the successful 2014 London revival, Noblezada, Briones, and Bammer have all joined the Broadway company to reprise their roles (along with the stellar Rachelle Ann Go as Gigi), and their deeply dedicated performances carry the sweeping score to new heights. Miss Saigon is a huge show (a cast of 44) in a huge theatre (1,761 seats) and nearly everything about this production is elevated to scale, including the iconic helicopter that comes barreling in from the rafters in Act II’s dramatic flashback sequence.
Even so, Miss Saigon relies just as heavily on its emotions. Connor directs the cast with high stakes, amplified to reach the last row of the balcony. But within this amplified reality, Noblezada can carry your heart in the palm of her hand. With a voice at times a girlish whisper and at others a defiant survivor, she is the face of a fallen country and it is nothing short of heartbreaking. Briones and Clarke are dutiful in their roles, as is Christopher, who delivers the poignant anthem “Bui Doi,” which pays tribute to the thousands of Amerasian children born during the war.
It is Jon Jon Briones who gets top billing and the final bow (save for whichever little boy is playing Tam, which offers one final heartstring tug before the curtain falls). Briones has been associated with Miss Saigon since the original 1989 London production where, as a production assistant, he weaseled his way into an audition and landed a role in the ensemble.
Now 28 years later, Briones has come into his own and perhaps brings a bit of closure to the role’s original controversy of casting Caucasian actor Jonathan Pryce in the Eurasian role. Briones is a spitfire and delivers much-needed humor to the otherwise ballad-heavy score, and it is his 11 o’clock number, “The American Dream,” that puts Miss Saigon smack dab in the middle of 21st-century relevancy, climaxing with:
Live like you haven’t a care.
The American Dream.
Take even more than it’s fair.
The American Dream…
Spend when the cupboard is bare.
The American Dream.
Just sell your soul and you gain the American Dream.
At the performance I saw, Briones at one point improvised, “Make America Great Again”—a purposeful jab at today’s headlines—and the audience lapped it up. But it wasn’t necessary. His performance and the material on the page deliver the message loud and clear.
In a season of stripped down revivals, including minimalistic productions of Sunset Boulevard, The Glass Menagerie, and Sunday in the Park With George, you’ll feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth with Miss Saigon‘s flashy production design (conceived by Adrian Vaux and designed by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley). But once you’ve left the theatre and the stage goes dim, it will be Miss Saigon’s haunting score and timely reflection on how war impacts the human spirit that will stay with you.
1681 Broadway, NYC
Through January 2018
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.