Controversial casting and a nifty bit of stagecraft marked (some might say “marred”) the Broadway premiere of Miss Saigon in 1991. But the blockbuster musical lasted a decade on the Great White Way and, following recent return engagements of his 80s hits Cats and Les Miserables, powerhouse producer Cameron Mackintosh has brought it back to the same Broadway theater where it initially ran, with three leads from the recent London revival.
If only it were a sturdier show. A musical melodrama that begins at the end of the Vietnam War, Miss Saigon comes from Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the French team who turned Les Miserables into an international phenomenon. But although, like Les Miz, it’s based on a celebrated work (the opera Madame Butterfly), it only occasionally packs the emotional punch that Boublil and Schonberg achieve so beautifully in their more renowned show, and many of the songs sounds like leftovers.
Kim (Eva Noblezada) is a Vietnamese girl who loses her family in the war and end ups working in a sleazy club for American GIs run by the opportunistic Engineer (Jon Jon Briones), who reels in customers with a “Miss Saigon” pageant and longs to emigrate to America. But troubled soldier Chris (Alistair Brammer) instantly falls in love with the young innocent and plans to whisk her back to the U.S. and wed her. Before he can, though, Saigon falls and Chris and Kim are separated.
Most of the rest of the show takes place three years later, in 1978. Lives have changed, but the war still haunts Chris back in America, as well as Kim and the Engineer, whose lives are a misery in Vietnam. Despite this, Miss Saigon feels long and labored. Instead of characters coming across as universal, they often play as far too general.
Director Laurence Connor, taking over for original helmer Nicholas Hytner, has a fine cast. Brammer’s Chris is tormented and confused about the past and not sure how to right matters in the present. Briones makes the Engineer – a Eurasian character controversially played by Caucasian Jonathan Pryce in the original production – a purely comical creature, appropriate for a playful number like “The American Dream,” but his menace doesn’t register.
To be sure, there are highlights, notably Noblezada, an American who played Kim to acclaim in the West End (and who just four years ago was a finalist at the National High School Musical Theatre Awards). She makes a sublime Broadway debut, with a voice that’s as delicate as it is powerful, and her performance is full of passion.
But what’s come to be known as the helicopter scene is Miss Saigon’s most powerful segment, not because it features a chopper flying over the stage, but due to what’s happening below. The sight of Vietnamese masses clamoring desperately to get out of their crumbling country as their last hope leaves them behind is devastating.
For that show that tackles such a dire period in American history, however, Miss Saigon doesn’t have the depth or the urgency to depict the cost of war. Despite heavy ballads and serious subject, this is Les Miz lite.