Review: Miss Saigon at Signature Theatre

Time flies. When the musical Miss Saigon first appeared in London and New York City in 1989, the Vietnam War was still a painful wound on our national psyche. We dealt with it mostly by not thinking about it. Miss Saigon made us look back at the war, specifically the end of that war, and relive a lot of that hurt. It was done in the context of yet another retelling of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. Now, here it is nearly a quarter of a century later. More than one generation has been born with no memory of that war. Today, Miss Saigon, when it is performed, serves many purposes but one of them is simply to present that raw time in our national life to new generations in an engaging and realistic way. America as the country that always won and always did right died as those helicopters pulled away from our embassy in Saigon in 1975.

As staged in the tight quarters of Arlington’s Signature Theater, this musical from the team that brought us the more successful Les Miserables is not quite what I recall seeing on stage in the Kennedy Center sometime in the 1990s. For one thing, there is no helicopter dropped from the rafters, although there is what looks like the underbelly of a helicopter. There is also a new song, “Maybe”, that bridges the introductions of the two women who love Chris and a confrontation scene.

Popular musicals fortunate enough to get restaged in Signature Theater’s intimate setting are always worth seeing. This was our fourth show at Signature, and all of them have been impressive. Happily, their staging of Miss Saigon was no exception. Theater buffs will be impressed not just by the quality of the show, but if you have not been there before also by the intimacy of the theater. There is not a bad seat in the house. Signature spent a bundle on this show. This production cost over a million dollars, which made me feel better about the ticket price I paid, which was over a hundred dollars a seat when you include taxes and surcharges.

There is one surprise in this musical: the understudy plays the pivotal role of Chris. A Washington Post article has the details if you are interested. If there is a defect in this performance, it is that the understudy Gannon O’Brien’s performance while competent is not on quite the same level as other pivotal players. In particular, Thom Sesma as The Engineer and Diana Huey as Kim get to suck out most of the energy on the stage instead. Of the two, Huey is the more impressive, but she is also blessed with a role that calls for manifesting extreme emotions, so it is hard not to focus on her. Arguably, Sesma’s role as the creepy and slimy host of the Saigon strip bar Dreamland, which thinly masquerades for a house of prostitution, is the more challenging. It is actually the better role, as evil characters are generally more fun to play, and The Engineer is certainly as slimy as they come. Dreamland depends on U.S. Marines for its income, and there are few of them around in Saigon in 1975 except at the American embassy as the Vietcong encroach on Saigon and the Americans plan a hasty retreat.

Our seats were on the wings of the Dress Circle (upper level), which were both good and bad. The good were that we were close to the actors but the bad were that our view of actors and the set was obscured from time to time. This is the price you pay when you wait too long to get tickets. The extra intimacy though was quite nice at times. We could watch Kim’s face drain when she learns that Ellen is Chris’s wife, for example. Huey as Kim is an inspired choice because she brings intensity and complexity to the role that traps her like a vice between impossible forces.

The music tends to be quite dramatic with little in the way of comic relief, except the Engineer’s soliloquy song “American Dream” toward the end of the show. It is also quite engaging and impressive music. Its only failure is that it isn’t Les Miserables. This is not so much a failure as it is an impossibility. Les Miserables hit an impossible to dislike story with impossibly great music. Miss Saigon is a tragedy. Les Miserables is a story of both tragedy and redemption.

Still, there are similarities between these brother musicals, products of the same creative team. They were not obvious to me until last night, mainly because I had not concentrated on the contrasts and similarities before. Thenardier and The Engineer are definitely two peas from the same pod, both disgusting and fascinating at the same time. They both provide comic relief and sustain interest over the two plus hours in the theater. Both shows have tragic dying scenes that are eerily similar: Kim’s at the conclusion of the show and Eponine’s in the arms of the man who does not love her, Marius.

Signature delivers high impact emotional scenes, which are many. The emotional highlight should be the ending scene, but that’s only if you don’t know the plot. If you do know the plot, you wait for the helicopter-less scene. It may be sans helicopter, but it is not sans excitement as Vietnamese with close American ties try to board the last helicopters out of Vietnam. Kim is one of them pressing against the embassy gate that separates her from her lover Chris. It was smart to put this scene as a flashback toward the end of Act Two. It would have lost much of its emotional impact if it had been put in Act One.

Signature Theater may have gone a bit overboard with the dry ice. The idea is to recreate the mist and humidity of Vietnam but of course the theater is cool instead of tropical. It makes the set a bit hard to view the set and actors at times. And as with Chess that we saw there, there is some smoking on stage, but only in the first scene, which will be painful to chronic nonsmokers like us.

The show has been extended through October 6. If you like the musical and can afford the three-digit ticket price, you’ll find it money well spent providing that you can snag a remaining ticket. It’s worth the effort to find out.

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