Monday, August 19, 2013

Theater Review: Signature Theatre’s ‘Miss Saigon’

Location: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA

Website: Official Signature Theatre site

Starring: Thom Sesma, Diana Huey, Jason Michael Evans, Chris Sizemore, Christopher Mueller, Erin Driscoll

My Review: *In the name of fairness, I will disclose that I saw this production while it was still in previews and the pivotal role of Chris (Jason Michael Evans) was being played by the understudy (Gannon O’Brien).*

I have long had a fondness for the musical Miss Saigon. Created by the team of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, it was the blockbuster theatrical production that followed their other blockbuster theatrical production, Les Misérables, and landed on Broadway during my formative pre-teen years. Already being a Les Mis devotee—and a fan of big, emotional musicals in general—it wasn’t hard to fall in line with Team Miss Saigon.

Loosely based on Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon is the ultimate tragic love story set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. American GI Chris meets and falls in love with the Vietnamese prostitute Kim (but she’s only a prostitute out of desperation and only for that one night when they meet, so she’s not that kind of prostitute, making her a protagonist that even the most conservative theater-goer would feel OK rooting for). Unfortunately, his plans to marry her and bring her back to America with him go awry when they get separated during the fall of Saigon and Kim is left behind. Three years go by, and an increasingly desperate Kim is still holding onto the dream of the return of her American husband. A reunion seems imminent when Chris’ war buddy, John, discovers Kim’s new whereabouts in Bangkok and they set out to find her. But the presence of Chris’ wife, Ellen, throws a wrench into Kim’s happily-ever-after fantasy.

Those who aren’t intimately familiar with the story or music of Miss Saigon probably know it best as, “that musical with the helicopter.” And it’s true; the early 1990s original Broadway production landed a helicopter on stage, along with having a full-size Cadillac appear for a major musical number and featuring a giant statue of Ho Chi Minh that loomed over the stage. For better or worse, it was what I like to call “a big-ass musical.” But the Signature Theatre is a modestly-sized venue, so they couldn’t do this big-ass musical with its original production values even if they wanted to (or could afford to). So how could they translate Miss Saigon for what their space would allow?

With some pretty creative staging and choreography that, for the most part, actually worked. All the musical numbers are still there, but instead of 30 dancing chorus members, there are 10. Instead of one giant Ho Chi Minh, there are six normal-sized ones still casting an imposing presence. Instead of landing a helicopter…well, I don’t want to give away all of Signature’s tricks, but what they come up with works just as well for the scene.

Surprisingly (to me, at least), the show doesn’t suffer from the move to its new, smaller digs. Sure, grand theatrics and stage pyrotechnics are fun and all, but the story, songs, and heart are what make a musical worthwhile, and none of that is missing at the Signature Theatre. There were a few instances where you could tell the cast would have liked a little more space to move or dance about in, but that didn’t detract from the more important moments, like feeling the necessary gut-punch when Kim first encounters Chris’ new wife.

Kim is, in my opinion (check the name of the blog, bitches), the performance that can make or break a production of Miss Saigon. And luckily, Diana Huey is up to the task. She’s believably scared and overwhelmed when first thrown into the life of a Vietnamese prostitute, sells you on the joy she feels when she thinks she’s found a good man who will take care of her, then breaks your heart when all of her dreams fall apart. With a voice that my theater companion aptly called “Disney princess pretty,” she’s a perfect fit for the sweet, naïve Kim. (Fun, if not overly relevant, fact: Lea Salonga, who was the original Kim on Broadway, also provided the singing vocals for Disney’s Princess Jasmine in Aladdin and Mulan in Mulan.)

Another cast standout is Thom Sesma as the Engineer, the club-owner/pimp/opportunist who first brings Kim into her new line of work and then latches onto her when he sees her as his ticket to becoming the American entrepreneur he dreams of being. Gifted with some of the more fun musical numbers, he provides bursts of much-needed comic relief during the performance, easily working his sleazy charm over on the audience while completely failing to do so on stage with various Vietnamese officials and American soldiers.

The role of Chris has always been problematic to me. His development is shoved aside in favor of focusing on Kim, so his motivations are never as clearly defined. Does he really love her, or is he just trying to do what he thinks is the right thing in the moment? Did he really tap every resource he could to find her after being forced to leave her behind? How invested was he really if he managed to find a new American wife relatively quickly? As previously stated, I saw understudy Gannon O’Brien as Chris on the night I attended, and while he was capable enough, he was clearly not as comfortable in the role as I would imagine someone who had been rehearsing it for weeks would have been, which did nothing to make me stop questioning Chris’ various motives and decisions.

A more problematic role, in that it’s a totally thankless one, is that of Ellen, Chris’ wife. She creates the primary roadblock to the happily-ever-after we want to see, but rather than emphasizing how it’s a position she never wanted to be in, Erin Driscoll makes her version of Ellen seem almost cold and cruelly disinterested in the devastation that her very existence creates for Kim.

Signature’s new production of Miss Saigon also features a brand-new song for Ellen: “Maybe,” which replaces her former Act II number (and only solo), “Now That I’ve Seen Her” (or “It’s Her or Me,” depending on if you saw the original show in London or New York). The new tune is unmemorable and, being intimately familiar with the Original Broadway Cast album, I don’t know why the Monsieurs Schonberg and Boublil felt the need to fix what wasn’t broken.

The less I say about Christopher Mueller as Thuy, the horrible man Kim’s parents arranged for her to marry before the war, the better. It’s a relatively small part, so the minutes you’re forced to spend watching him try to portray an intimidating figure are blessedly few.

Bottom Line: The Signature Theatre is marketing this new staging of Miss Saigon as the most ambitious and largest production in their history, and thankfully they were up for the challenge. There are a few growing pains (or in this case, shrinking pains), but nothing that detracts from the overall enjoyment of the show. Much like its older sister Les Misérables, Miss Saigon isn’t without fundamental problems on the page, but the newly trim version at Signature is a testament to how well a small theater can do a big-ass musical.