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Even Without Its Star, Miss Saigon Shines

Having heard so much about Eva Noblezada’s Tony-nominated performance as Kim in the Cameron McIntosh-produced revival of Miss Saigon, the musical from Les Miserables creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, I was naturally disappointed to arrive at the theatre to find that she was being replaced by an understudy. I needn’t have worried. Of course this production would have ample Kims available if they should be needed (Lianah Sta.Ana does two regular performances each week), and Emily Bautista was more than up to the task, her performance almost mimicking the growing strength of her character. At first, despite a white dress that helps her to stand out, she gets lost a bit in all of the Saigon chaos: a rare virgin who does not belong in this world of whores. As she finds the need to assert herself, though—”Do you want one more tale of a Viet Nam girl?”—the emotional power of her performance grows and never backs down. From that point, whether in love, protecting her son, or “doing what it takes to survive,” Bautista chooses to wear Kim’s emotions on her sleeves: a wise choice in a big, bold, noisy musical that ultimately must come down to some very quiet, personal moments.

Of course, the musical isn’t all about Kim despite her position at the center of its “Madame Butterfly” conceptualization. In essence, despite a cast of a few dozen, this is a six-person show, and the six are divided into two tiers: the first involves Kim, her GI lover Chris, and “The Engineer,” the sleazy, anything-to-make-a-buck pimp we first meet as proprietor of Dreamland, a bar/brothel in a dump of a Saigon district. The second tier are Chris’s American wife, Ellen, his best friend John, and Kim’s betrothed, Thuy. Of course there are other characters, but these are the ones at the center, so the actors playing them need to shine the brightest.

As The Engineer, Jon Jon Briones is almost the personification of slime. You want to wash after his every scene. In other words, he is perfect: a man so full of himself, so uncaring of others, that when he meets Tam, Kim’s son, all he sees is “a passport in my hand.” Boy? What boy? Perhaps he sees him as the rest of the Vietnamese see him: as another half-breed, a “bui doi,” the dust of life, unworthy of any consideration at all. Or perhaps he gives Tam just as much consideration as he gives anyone, which is to say none. The Engineer is obsessed with his “American Dream”: going to the USA, where “men like me have things easy” and he won’t have to “waste my talent for greed.” Briones is brilliant in scene after scene, showing us a man utterly lacking in scruples and having lots of fun doing it.

As for Chris, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Alistair Brammer is able to act the part brilliantly, and his chemistry with Bautista (an understudy, remember) is palpable: that speaks wonders for what he must be like with Noblezada. And he has some truly dynamite scenes, most notably the siege of the embassy and a coda that has been added for this new production. But his singing is, perhaps, something that may be problematic to some, myself included. Although he has a nice voice, Brammer punctuates it with such a constant, powerful and notable vibrato that, frankly, it started bothering me almost right away and never stopped. I don’t know if that is a choice he made for this role or something natural in his voice, but it did not work for me. Clearly I am in the minority, though, so don’t judge him harshly just because the vibrato had me thinking about the vibrato instead of the lyrics and emotions of the songs. It’s probably something I should have learned to deal with.

The other three significant characters each have solid moments. John’s comes, as it did in the original staging, at the start of Act Two with the song “Bui Doi,” a plea for assistance for the “children left behind” by the retreating soldiers (including, as it turns out, Tam). Nicholas Christopher adds just the right blend of pathos and power to the ballad. Ellen is given a new song in this version of the play, replacing the familiar “Now That I’ve Seen Her.” Instead she wonders what “Maybe” is happening in her life: “Maybe it was fate / That suddenly brought her back to you, / And your love was true love, / Before I even knew you, / If the life of your dreams, / Is the life she is giving, / Should I be the one to stop your dream from living?” It’s a much more complex thought process than the previous song’s “I know what pain her life today must be / But if it all comes down to her or me / I don’t care, I swear, I’ll fight,” and Katie Rose Clark brings her powerful voice and expressive face to the new material, crafting it into a kind of plea of her own.

Thuy (Devin Ilaw) is more problematic. Ilaw is excellent, and his performance as the dramatic foil is top-notch, but other than a scene as an imagined ghost, his scenes are all very rushed and his dialogue and songs overlapped with others; it makes understanding him as anything other than a caricature next to impossible, and I don’t think he was intended to be a caricature.

The new staging, of course, is the raison de revival, and it is truly impressive. From the massive sets that seem to literally take us into the back streets of Saigon to small things like a scene that once took place in a room and now takes place in a kind of refugee camp to the more powerful and still very personal staging of the ending, McIntosh’s vision and Lawrence Connor’s brilliant direction transport us even more than this play ever did before. And if you’re wondering about the helicopter: of course they still land a helicopter. Only this time you not only see and hear it land; you feel it land too! And you feel it as it flies away, leaving those stranded behind to face the horror of “re-education camps,” which by this point in the narrative we’ve already seen.

This is the second large auditorium version of the play I’ve seen. I’ve also seen it staged in the round in a small dinner theatre. (The helicopter effects there, done all by suggestion, were terrific.) Part of me enjoyed the small theatre more than the original production simply because of the show’s intimate ending, which got so lost in the larger theatres. This new version solves that former problem and restores the play’s spectacle as completely justified. It’s a great solution and opens up everything while changing, really, nothing of consequence. You can’t change the ending of “Madame Butterfly.” There will be crying here. But at least now we can all feel present for it.

Miss Saigon is now playing at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway in New York, until January 14.  Tickets are available from The Shubert Corporation . Find more information about Chicago plays at theatreinchicago.com.

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