Miss Saigon is a show that is tricky to get right. Based on Puccini’s opera tale of a geisha left behind by her American lover, this Vietnam War-era story presents a delicate challenge of balance, it’s plain to see how it could be easy to err on the side of “commercial exploitation” rather than powerful performance and commentary on the tragedy of war. You must have the right actors cast in the right roles, and foresight as a director to understand how an audience will respond to every decision you make. Lighting, choreography, casting – each act as a nail to hold the integrity of this show together. Luckily for Utah theater lovers, Miss Saigon at the Eccles Theater hits each of those nails pretty much dead center.
Dynamic choreography welcomes the show from first curtain, and doesn’t stop until the final bows. From bar scenes (which may have been a little over the top in the objectification department, but what can you do) to epic battle sequences, every move created a perfectly unified scene.
Despite being on the road, this team put together an extremely detailed and intricately lit set, that set the mood from all angles. The lighting in a play is something that is rarely noticed by your average playgoer, but this technique was too striking not to make an impression. Mixing technology with physical elements, the lighting team created dusky alleys, gorgeous sunrises, a ghostly apparition and even that iconic helicopter (which transitioned from a projection to a life-size lookalike dropping from the rafters), each scene bringing more depth to the stage than the last.
But the only way to really pull off Miss Saigon is with a rockstar cast, which this company delivered in full, including a long list of talented Asian actors, a welcome sight considering the white-washed history of both previous runs of Miss Saigon, as well as Utah’s casting habits. There wasn’t a single performer who was “just okay,” and made up one of the best ensembles I’ve ever seen in a show. They were constantly engaged, which brought life to every corner of the stage.
Red Concepćion, who comes to us straight from the UK tour of the production, has received heaps of praise for the role of the Engineer in previous runs, played the role as marvelously as you could hope: equal parts sleazy villain and bumbling comic relief, constantly breaking the fourth wall to crack jokes a la Les Mis’ Thenardier, then turning right back into the manipulator of the century to sober you up again. He became an instant audience favorite, and was bestowed curtain call cheers second only in volume to the four year old prodigy playing Tam.
All these show-stopping elements aside, Miss Saigon is doomed to fall flat without impressive performances from star crossed lovers, 17 year old Vietnamese bar girl Kim and morally-conflicted G.I. marine Chris.
Anthony Festa brought as much “umph” as he could to Chris’s problematic character. The writers of this show tried their best to make Chris someone to sympathize with, but that note just doesn’t strike well with me. But Festa’s vocals brought ideal harmonies to Emily Bautista’s (Kim) soaring melodies, and drove home those emotional episodes that she pours to the crowd.
Emily Bautista was decidedly this show’s saving grace. Reprising the role from a previous Broadway run, her voice was both pure and passionate, and her ferocity as a mother and in the face of trial throughout the plot make her anything but a victim. Bautista’s intensely powerful performance made this marvel of a production everything it was meant to be: heart wrenching, awe-inspiring and thought-provoking. I’m not usually a crier, but watching her, there were definite waterworks in the press box, on more than one occasion.
Bottom line: everyone needs to experience Miss Saigon. I haven’t been moved this much by a musical in a long time, perhaps any time during my life as a theater lover. The depictions of war, poverty and especially those of Asian women are difficult to watch at times, but it shows in scene after painful scene tragedies brought on by war, on all scales. Bring your tissues and prepare for the performance of a lifetime – This cast is only here through Oct. 20th, so don’t delay.
NOTE: Miss Saigon, while enlightening, is decidedly not a family-friendly play. It contains scenes and language which may not be suitable for younger audience members, including scenes of a sexual nature. Recommended for ages 14+. The production also includes strobe lights, gun shots and pyrotechnic effects – keep those factors in mind when deciding whether to attend.