Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 2007
The tragic story of the oriental woman wronged by an occidental service man is usually told on a grand scale. Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 grand opera Madama Butterfly tops Opera America's list of the 20 most-performed operas in North America. The genesis of this tale is the 1887 French novel Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti, and the 1898 the short story Madame Butterfly by John Luther Long, which David Belasco adapted into a play which had a very brief run on Broadway in 1900 with Blanche Bates as Cho-Cho San.
While Miss Saigon owes its plot to Madama Butterfly, it was a photograph of a Vietnamese mother handing her sobbing young daughter over to airline personnel who would take her to live with her American father, who she had never seen, which inspired Claude Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, creators of Les Miserables. Schönberg has referred to her act as “the ultimate sacrifice.”
When Schönberg and Boublil, with the translation assistance of Richard Maltby, Jr., updated the story to Vietnam and Thailand in the 1970’s they turned it into a spectacular mega-show with helicopters and limousines along with splendid costumes and scene changes. It is sung-through, like grand opera. Rechristened Miss Saigon, this incarnation racked up ten year runs in London’s West End (1989-1999) and on Broadway (1991-2001). When it opened in New York had a top ticket price of $100. (Three guesses why I never saw the Broadway production.)
While there have been national tours, there is no way such a monumental show can be wedged into even the larger legit theatres in this area, so it was a bold move for C-R Productions to announce Miss Saigon as the second show of their fifth season at the bijou 1874 Cohoes Music Hall. They also promptly announced that there would be no helicopter.
Actually, under the direction of C-R Productions’ Artistic Director Jim Charles, this is one of the less flashy productions I have seen at Cohoes in a while, and there is nothing wrong with that. They get to trot out the sequins for The American Dream in Act II, parade a magnificent oriental dragon in The Morning of the Dragon, and crank up the hazer on several occasions. But this is a tragic story, and it deserves to be treated with dignity and allowed to play out in simplicity, without the distraction of over-production., especially as we now have young men and women fighting and dying, and no doubt falling in love, far from home in an eerily similar situation.
Charles has assembled a fine cast, many of whom are ethnically Asian. Whenever this story is told on stage there are those who feel that it is racist, imperialist, and feeds into the white man’s fantasy of the submissive Asian woman. They are probably right, but it is, after all, make-believe.
In the case of Miss Saigon there were protests over the casting of non-Asian actors wearing prostheses on their eyes, which detractors likened to the 19th century black-face minstrel tradition. Certainly on Broadway there is no excuse not to find and cast Asian actors, but Cohoes is about three and a half hours off Broadway and doesn’t have the same large and diverse pool of actors from which to choose. I know I wasn’t expecting to see ethnic Asians in all the Asian roles, but I was pleased to see a healthy proportion in the cast.
And frankly, in the melting pot that is American society today, it is mighty hard to tell by appearance or nomenclature who the truly Asian performances are. I saw little Jeffrey Li, as Kim’s son, Tam, who looked the epitome of an adorable Asian child. But he shares the role with a young actress named Maggie Doolan, a name that sounds suspiciously un-Asian, just like my cousin Anna Smith, who is full-blooded Korean.
Whatever strands of ethnic DNA lurk in these performers’ chromosomes, they manage to look either Asian or Caucasian as their roles require, and they all sing up a storm.
Yvonne Same is a dynamic Kim. While she does embody some of the submissive qualities we associate with Asian women, Kim is no push-over. She is tenacious like a terrier, clinging to her love for American G.I. Chris (Brendan Hoffman) and her devotion to and hoped for Tam. She wins in the end, though at a high price.
Having seen the young, sexy, and energetic Brian José as the Engineer, I cannot imagine middle-aged, oh-so-white-and-British Jonathan Pryce, who originated the role in London and New York, in the part. It was not surprising to learn that this is José’s fifth production of Miss Saigon, including the 2004-2005 North American tour. He looks like he is having a wonderful time playing the scum of the earth, and he is indisputably the dancing star of this production.
Eymard Meneses Cabling was strong as Thuy, the man to whom Kim was betrothed by her father at the age of thirteen. While Thuy can be perceived as the villain, attempting to keep Kim and Chris apart and threatening Tam’s life, he can also be seen as a voice of reason and a voice for the traditional Vietnamese way of living. It was not just the countryside that was decimated during the long period of war in Indochina during the 20th century. Age-old traditions and cultures were brutally shattered.
Hoffman and Dana Musgrove as his wife Ellen look very Ken-and-Barbie-All-American. Their ultimate decision on how to best care for Kim and Tam is tragically wrong-headed, as John (Adrien Gleason) repeatedly tells them, but it is Kim who forces her will on them. Hoffman and Gleason are strong singers – Gleason particularly shines in the Act II opener Bui-Doi. Gleason’s John acts as the American equivalent of Thuy, with his cautions to Chris not to breach the cultural divide between East and West by becoming involved with Kim. But circumstances are such that, whether or not Kim loved Chris, he is her best and only hope for a life without war.
The chorus is lively and morphs seamlessly from scene to scene, sometimes playing characters with names, often blending in to crowd scenes in a number of different guises. Kathleen Dunham was a stand-out early on as Gigi in the number The Movie In My Mind.
I did not miss the helicopter in the dynamic scene depicting the Fall of Saigon, thanks to the clever work of scenic designer Jen Price Fick and lighting designer Matt Fick. Here the chopper's arrival was heralded by the deafening noise of the propellers and the impressively acted chaos amongst the actors portraying the Vietnamese begging to be taken away from their homeland. A ladder descended, but the audience’s attention was diverted so that few noticed (only us wily theatre critics, I suspect) that the ladder exited stage right instead of up.
A talented pit band under the musical direction of Adam Jones and his assistant musical director Michael McAssey filled the Hall with Broadway-style sound. With older shows I have stated that a live orchestra/band and unmiked singers provided the audience with a chance to hear that music as it was intended to be heard (for instance no one miked Ethel Merman!) But in this case the creators intended for the music and the singers to be amplified and electronically enhanced to the fullest extent. This gives Jones, McAssey and the cast the unique challenge of blending and balancing sounds that don't necessarily do so naturally. They have done a fine job.
Born in 1957, I am just old enough to have clear memories of the television coverage of the Vietnam War and the protests here at home. I would imagine that many of the older members of the audience not only remembered watching Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley bring the flickering black-and white images into their homes, but served in Vietnam themselves or had friends, spouses and children who fought and/or died in the conflict. Perhaps there were Bui-Doi (children of American servicemen and Vietnamese women) in the audience, or their parents.
It was a terrible time there and here. If we had the draft it would be a terrible time in America all over again. The timing makes this show doubly tragic and really would render any flashy presentation of it tasteless. C-R Productions has managed the perfect balance of theatrical entertainment and solemn simplicity to make Miss Saigon a poignant and relevant anti-war statement for today.
Miss Saigon, presented by C-R Productions, runs weekends through November 11 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. Performances Friday & Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., Saturday & Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and is much too frightening and tragic for children under 13. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007