“Miss Saigon” is confounding. Claude-Michel Schonberg’s score is magnificent, irresistibly seductive. The “Madame-Butterfly-in-Vietnam” plot is impossible to praise without major caveats.
When it premiered in 1989, “Miss Saigon” sparked protests that have endured over decades. The show’s original leading man — The Engineer, a Eurasian pimp — was initially played by Jonathan Pryce, a white man. Theater luminaries including the great playwright David Henry Hwang protested the use of yellow-face. Subsequent productions cast the role appropriately (or at least more appropriately), but the show still engenders accusations of stereotyping and playing into the tired trope of a helpless Asian woman pining for a Western savior while being abused by her villainous countrymen.
‘Miss Saigon’ ★★★ When: Through Dec. 8 Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph Tickets: $35 – $120 Info: broadwayinchicago.com
But something remarkable happens under director Laurence Connor’s direction of the lavish, no-expense-spared national tour. Powerfully aided by Bob Avian’s choreography, the Broadway-sized ensemble cast captures the annihilating destructiveness of war with merciless, shattering vividness. If you missed the first televised war when it brought Vietnam into the living rooms of Mr. and Mrs. America in the 1960s and ‘70s, “Miss Saigon” offers a glimpse at the kind of images that helped the tide turn against the U.S. involvement there, and subsequently, of all the fatal, arrogant flaws in American foreign policy and those who carried it out.
Led by Emily Bautista as the doomed Kim, the cast elevates “Miss Saigon’s” characters beyond stereotype. They give the lyrics (by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil) and the book (Boublil) specificity and humanity.
It’s tough to overstate the paradoxical agency Bautista brings to the Kim, the girl who falls in love with the Marine Chris (Anthony Festa) and then spends three years pining for him. Kim’s final action is one of unequivocal, permanent erasure. Yet Bautista still manages to make Kim a woman of steel and intelligence. Her “I’d Give My Life for You” is a force field of maternal protection and the song of a woman who has survived things that would break most of us. It also foreshadows just how far she’s capable of going in the name of protecting what she loves. When Kim makes her last choice, it’s a depiction of how war normalizes atrocity and how trauma makes self-destruction seem like the only way to embrace life.
As the Engineer, Red Concepcion is more abusive than previous incarnations of the role. His casual violence toward the women he traffics highlights the cruelty of those who taught him his trade: first the French, mostly the Yanks. The blisteringly satirical showstopper “The American Dream” lays out the Engineer’s driving ethos with retina-searing bombast. In this production, the Statue of Liberty — mouth nightmarishly agape — literally throws up a new car. The Engineer writhes on the hood like a horny teenage boy with a passed-out cheerleader at his disposal. It’s shocking and disgusting, and the stone of truth at the core of all the spectacle will make you squirm. And Concepcion sells it with a thousand-watt guile that could light up the Reno strip.
As Chris, Festa has the shell-shocked look of someone who grew up expecting comfort and happiness as his birthright and cannot process a world that has no interest in understanding him. Both Chris and his wife, Ellen (Stacie Bono), are as blind as they are entitled. As they smugly congratulate themselves on their benevolence, their actions cause the story’s central tragedy. Their oblivion to the connection is obvious.
Connor’s direction veers from earlier productions in other respects. Some are large: When the infamous helicopter launches, the screams and the collective collapse of the wall of people left behind is as attention-grabbing as the chopper. When Chris’s battle buddy John (J. Daughtry) fundraises for Vietnamese orphans in “Bui Doi,” it’s with a growl of raging judgment. Some are tiny: A prostitute picking up a stray coin from the dirt while trailing after the G.I. who just bought her. Kim’s Vietnamese betrothed Thuy (Jinwoo Jung) manifesting his curse in eerily fluttering laundry lines and broken picture frames.
Not all of the tweaks work. Ellen’s “It’s Her or Me” was watered down once when it was changed to “Now That I’ve Seen Her.” Now, it’s further diluted into the comparatively conventional torch song, “Maybe.” And putting a refugee from “The Book of Mormon” in the Engineer’s face is a gross misstep.
Still, when you think on songs like “The Movie in My Mind,” it’s impossible to dismiss the power of the score and this cast. Bargirl Gigi’s (Christine Bunuan) haunting rendition of the ballad speaks to a reality where cruelty and hope are inseparable, and a yearning for a world where they are not. The number is only the second in the show, and Bunuan sets the bar by giving it heartbreaking impact. The cast follows suit, making “Miss Saigon” far more complicated than its broad-brush story might lead you to believe.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.