Audiences, critics and protesters continue to share their misgivings about Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s “Miss Saigon” since its 1989 debut on West End. The initial controversy of yellow face and the lasting stereotypical portrayals of Vietnamese survivors, the victimization and sexualization of Asian women and the white-washed fantasization of the Vietnam War are revisited every time the show is revived.
But following, even perhaps overshadowing, the long thread of issues with “Miss Saigon” is its appraisals — the dazzling show tunes and choreography, sumptuous stage design and the undeniable technical feat of the production. After 29 years, with several revivals on Broadway, West End, in Japan and multiple tours around the U.K., Ireland and U.S., a Los Angeles Times headline from 1991 succinctly summarizes the trajectory of this commercial juggernaut: “Protests Aside, ‘Miss Saigon’ Show Goes On.”
For the uninitiated, “Miss Saigon” is a musical drama based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera, “Madame Butterfly”; The opera, in turn, stems from John Luther Long’s 1898 short story with the same name, which is based on Pierre Loti’s 1887 French novel “Madame Chrysanthème;” all of which feature a white American man eventually abandoning his partner, an Asian woman. The main difference: Boublil and Schönberg have used the Vietnam War as an expensive backdrop for the romance to unravel.
In a New York Times article, Boublil stated that the relationship between the two main lovers — Chris, an American GI, and Kim, a virgin bargirl — was supposed to be a reflection of the misunderstanding between two countries. But, confined in a comfortable, luxurious theater several thousand miles away from Ho Chi Minh City — the main setting of the play — and its population, how much does the musical truly provoke the audience (mostly white on Thursday’s showing at the SHN Orpheum Theatre) to give serious consideration or thought to what happened now more than 43 years ago?
There’s a larger-than-life bust of the former prime minister, Ho Chi Minh, during the haunting number, “The Morning of the Dragon.” A compilation of presumably real videos of Amerasian children conceived and abandoned during the Vietnam War — known as bui doi, which translates to “dust of life” — is projected during the song, “Bui Doi.” And throughout, actors playing desperate Vietnamese citizens beg American soldiers for a ticket out of Vietnam.
All evocative moments, for sure; but they’re not what will come to mind when audiences leave the two-hour, 40-minute show. Among the pomp of each set piece that transitions and transforms with grand, sweeping gestures and dramatic performances, people will most likely leave talking about that damn helicopter. But, understandably so. After all, how many plays have landed a miniature rotorcraft on stage?
The problem with “Miss Saigon” runs deeper when we consider the number of opportunities it has provided for talented Asian and Asian American actors to star in Broadway-level shows — a number that remains staggeringly low — including the cast of the U.S. tour.
In this production, Red Concepción, replacing Jon Jon Briones for the role of the Engineer, transforms into the sleazy, cynical Vietnamese pimp most notably through his gesticulating caricature-like facial expressions. Emily Bautista raises hairs and goosebumps as her voice melodically quivers during “I Still Believe.”
And either through sheer performance or with the help of makeup, Jinwoo Jung, playing the penniless cousin-turned-officer of the North Vietnamese Army, Thuy, truly looks like he’s about to simultaneously explode and faint at the thought of letting the one he loves die in front of him.
Director Laurence Connor’s rendition of “Miss Saigon” is undeniably something to behold, especially for people far removed from the horrors of the Vietnam War, which will be most modern audiences. The case may be different for those who consider the life of a bui doi as an unreconciled reality.
So for those who plan to watch the play, take this into consideration: The revival of “Miss Saigon,” with all its pomp and advanced technological flash, is nothing more than one of those digitally remastered versions of Disney classics — an old tale with garish show tunes that we’ve seen before, just made a bit prettier. Treat it as such.