Thursday, July 11, 2019

“Miss Saigon” Returns For Another Round Of Another War Where The Innocents Are Left In Its Wake.

Every now and then it’s good to look back and reflect on the wars, deeds and actions in which our country has been involved. There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned tragedy to bring us to our senses, or not.

Take for example Puccini’s  “Madama Butterfly” and Claude-Michael Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s “Miss Saigon”.

Puccini wrote “Madama Butterfly” (“Miss Saigon” is based on that opera) in 1904.  The story revolves around the arranged marriage between the American, U.S. Navy Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and his geisha Cio-Cio-San, and ends in tragedy when Pinkerton and his ship leave the port and his Japanese ‘wife’ behind.  He later returns to the States and marries an American woman.

Cio-Cio-San, who by now has a son, waits for Pinkerton because she believed him when he told her he would return for her. I’m sure I’m not spoiling anything for anyone when I tell you he had no intention of returning for her but when he finally does, she already knows he has married the American.
The photo that inspired the story
In her mind, the only solution for her to save face and give her child a better life is for her to kill herself. How and why we keep repeating our mistakes when it comes to our social/ political and cultural  behaviors is beyond me.

Rather than taking the high ground instead of the lowest common denominator and acting like spoiled and entitled children when we are guests, occupy or are fighting in another country is still an unanswered question. But it happens over and over again which lends itself to yet another, more up to date version of  “Butterfly”.
Those left behind
Fast forward to Vietnam, (the war lasted from 1955 to 1975  and over 50,000 of our young men died or were listed as MIA’s) where once again American G.I.’s took the women of that country for their pleasure leaving behind thousands of ‘half breeds’ or ‘leftovers’; ‘children of the dust’ and orphans left to fend for themselves; children of Vietnamese mothers and U.S. soldiers that never batted an eyelash.

These children were left at orphanages or to fend for themselves and live in poverty and starvation in a country devastated by war. Neither story is about war, but the scars and arrogance of war.

Claude- Michael Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s (“Les Miserables”) “Miss Saigon” is based on a photograph Schönberg saw in a magazine showing a Vietnamese mother leaving her child at a departure gate at Tan Son Nhat Air Base to board a plane to the US where her American father would provide a better life for her. It was to become ‘the ultimate sacrifice’ and the motivation that propelled this musical drama for Schönberg and Boublil along with Richard Maltby, Jr. who wrote the lyrics with Boublil.

 “Miss Saigon” the musical (it comes close to being in the opera category) opened on Broadway in 1991 and played nearly 10 years and now Broadway San Diego is bringing it back for the second or maybe even third time around as a revival. It will be at the Civic Theatre through July 14th and is not recommended for children.
Red Concepcion as The Engineer 
This production has several show stoppers including Emily Bautista, who plays Kim, the bargirl who becomes the love object of Chris’ affection (Anthony Festa), one of the Marines stationed in Vietnam (the action is actually moved to Saigon). Both are strong voiced and talented artists but the time spent developing that relationship never jelled on stage, at least not for him.

Chris meets Kim at the local nightspot ‘The Dreamland’ club and Moulin Rouge where the call girls, under the tutelage of a guy named The Engineer (an ambitious and energetic Red Conception) are pretty much up for sale for a night if the price is right. If the engineer sees a chance to exploit one of them for a trip out of Saigon to the States, he’s all over it. 
Emily Bautista and Anthont Festa
Both Kim and Chris are reluctant at first to go off with one another but Chris’ Marine Buddy John, (J. Daughtry very sound presence) pays the Engineer for a night and insists Chris get out of the bar and go with Kim.  

The love affair between Kim, (who was 17), and Chris have only two weeks to know each other before Saigon will fall. What relations might normally take time to develop become urgencies in times of duress where matters of love and duty is of the essence. So not much chemistry there, but hey, neither did Romeo and Juliet or Maria and Tony for that matter. 

Timing, they say is everything. The time frame that got in the way of their plans to be together was the hurried evacuation of Saigon. Things were chaotic. Either Chris didn’t have time or his superiors wouldn’t give him the proper papers for Kim to leave with, but in the end, he left and she remained behind, again hopeful that he would come for her. That segment was fuzzy as the plot left us dangling at the end of Act I and was revisited in Act II.

Once again, a lover and a child are left behind with the expectations that they will some day be reunited. As the famous or infamous helicopter blades rap overhead (sound design by Mick Potter with lighting by Bruno Poet) to take the remaining Americans and however many Vietnamese out, a chain link fence keeps the ‘others’ in.


Three years after the evacuation, and now under a Communist regime, Chris manages to get back to the country only to find Kim’s fate in the same hands as that of Cio-Cio- San.

But all the glitter, and there was a lot including some impressive singing by Festa along with the Dragon Acrobats (Bob Avian choreography) and “The American Dream” number with showgirls a la Las Vegas Strip knowhow by the sleazy Engineer (Red Conception) are more than entertaining but at its chore “Miss Saigon” smacks of racism and stereotypical behavior and hits such a high mark that one has to wonder what the appeal is.

It can’t be the love story that is as old as the ages. And if we are comparing Butterfly and Kim, Kim lacks the grace and charm of Cio Cio –San. Perhaps it’s the glitz or that most of the current playgoers don’t remember this war as those who lived it night after night on the T.V. do.

As directed by Laurence Conner in this revival too much time was spent on the opening scenes in a hodgepodge of characters milling around, as hoards of soldiers and prostitutes walk back and forth doing whatever it is they do when drinking and feeling the backsides of the scantilly dressed women (Andreane Neofitou). From there each scene after flies by in a flash to unite Kim and Chris. And before we know it we’re in Ho Chi Minh City and Atlanta where Chris and his American wife live.

Not to belabor a running theme on the sound in the Civic, but it was way too loud drowning out the voices especially in the opening scenes under conductor Will Curry’s baton and orchestra.  
Dragon Acrobats
San Diego connections: In 1975 thousands and thousands of refugees were camped in tent cities at Camp Pendleton where the Marines looked after them until they could be reunited with families or were adopted out. It is interesting to note also that the USS Midway, now a museum docked in our bay, was the same carrier that the helicopters landed on with the final evacuation of Bangkok.  City Heights native Jackie Nguyen plays the bar hooker Gigi at the American Dream club along with the large ensemble but in 2012 she played Kim in La Mirada Theatre’s production of “Miss Saigon”.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through July 14th
Organization: Broadway San Diego
Phone: 619-564-3011
Production Type: Musical Drama
Where: 1100 3rd and B Street, Downtown San Diego
Ticket Prices: $22.00 and up
Venue: Civic Theatre

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