'Miss Saigon' wows on technical merits, though love story is a tired trope
"Miss Saigon" - ★ ★ ★
The new national tour of "Miss Saigon" at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre undeniably impresses with impassioned performances and staging that wows. But the controversial 1989 musical tragedy continues to leave a bitter taste (especially for this critic of partial Asian heritage).
By updating Puccini's 1904 opera "Madame Butterfly" to the Vietnam War era, "Miss Saigon's" French songwriters Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Bloublil ("Les Misérables") perpetuate the tired Western trope of an Asian woman who sacrifices her love and life to a white man.
The central romantic couple of American G.I. Chris (Anthony Festa) and the orphaned villager Kim (Emily Bautista) are respectively far less malicious and naive than their operatic counterparts. Yet Kim's ultimate suicide feels more dramatically rote rather than being psychologically motivated.
"Miss Saigon" emerged during the era of bombastic British musical blockbusters, so scenic spectacle is expected and delivered here. Designers Totie Driver and Matt Kinley (production) and Luke Halls (projections) masterfully re-imagine the infamous helicopter effect for the Act II "Fall of Saigon" flashback sequence. The visuals are flashy and dramatic, but everything also has the slickness of a theme park ride.
Director Laurence Connor's 2014 London and 2017 Broadway reboot of "Miss Saigon" doesn't stray too far from the template of original director Nicholas Hytner and choreographer Bob Avian. But it's clear there were efforts to reshape the material, especially by giving Chris' American wife, Ellen (Stacie Bono), a more sympathetic and conflicted Act II song titled "Maybe" (local songwriter Michael Mahler provided additional lyrics to the original English-language lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr.).
The core material of "Miss Saigon" may be problematic, but this touring production can't be accused of stinting on performing talent -- especially with a lavish cast of 42 who vocally deliver on the pop ballad-heavy score.
In addition to the strong singing of Bautista as Kim and Festa as Chris, J. Daughtry delivers as the soldier-turned-charity worker John with the Act II opener "Bui Doi." Jinwoo Jung also makes for a menacing Thuy, Kim's betrothed suitor who switches to the side of the North Vietnamese.
But it's Red Concepción as "The Engineer" who walks away with the show. Concepción clearly relishes playing this slimy pimp whose motivating "American Dream" is an unashamedly perverted production number filled with the tacky glitz of bedazzled bikinis and bell-bottom tuxedos (fine work by costume designer Andreane Neofitou).
There is much to technically admire about this new "Miss Saigon" tour. But nearly 30 years on, the musical itself remains divisive.
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Location: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; through Dec. 8. No show Thursday, Nov. 22. Additional 2 p.m. show Friday, Nov. 23.
Running time: About 2 hours 40 minutes, including intermission
Parking: Area pay garages and limited metered street parking
Rating: For mature audiences: strong sexual content, drug use and violence