The Walking Wounded

Miss Saigon -- that monster musical hit from the creators of Les Miserables and producer Cameron Mackintosh, now playing at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts -- reminded me of the Vietnam War, which serves as its backdrop. Like the war, the show contained some striking and poignant scenes, terrifying yet awe-inspiring special effects, and murky characters who were neither complete heroes nor unmitigated villains. It was bleak, sad, and ultimately inconclusive. Also like the war, it went on too long, wasted a lot of talent, coerced people into performing unnatural acts, and left both confusion as to its intent and lingering disappointment in its wake.

Having seen neither the New York nor London versions, I approached the show at Broward with fresh eyes and a great deal of hope. Possibly too much. It is unwise these days to have high expectations for a mass product that opened in New York three years ago with the largest advance ticket sales in Broadway history: $37 million. In London Miss Saigon has become the greatest musical success at Drury Lane's Theatre Royal since a far better show appeared there: My Fair Lady. It appears I have a problem with such mega crowd-pleasers, possessed as I am by an aversion to the mob mentality and fervent hype. Not least when the actual product is less than first-rate. For that I am thankful, even though it's usually a mixed blessing.

Undoubtedly many people will love Miss Saigon and disagree with my assessment. I certainly don't condemn them for that. The lighting, set design, and effects are extraordinary, easily the most impressive I've ever seen. A helicopter lands and takes off on-stage, though not a real one as in London. Cars float out of the heavens. A barren landscape is suddenly transformed into a bustling street in Bangkok, bursting with neon lights and scantily clad ladies of the night. An eighteen-foot-high statue of Ho Chi Minh dominates an elaborately staged marching scene. The choreography inhabiting these landscapes is equally remarkable. Before the helicopter arrives to whisk away U.S. soldiers during the fall of Saigon, a complex set of chases and escapes, frantically enacted by soldiers and Vietnamese attempting to flee, sets the scene magnificently. I loved the spectacle.

For those who cry at love stories with tragic endings, Miss Saigon will also deftly dampen their handkerchiefs. Based on Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly, the action A and there is plenty of it A is updated and flips back and forth between Saigon and Bangkok from 1975 to 1978. Shortly before the transformation of Saigon into Ho Chi Minh City, a starry-eyed American GI named Chris falls in love with Kim, an orphaned Vietnamese innocent. Kim migrates to Saigon in a daze, stunned by witnessing the destruction of her village and the brutal death of her parents, and falls into the clutches of the Engineer, a seedy Eurasian specializing in prostitution. Before she can lose her virginity to some drunken American lout, Chris takes her for the night and romance quickly blossoms. After two weeks together, they regard each other as man and wife, and Chris promises to take Kim back to America with him.

In the chaos of the hasty evacuation, however, they are cruelly separated. Kim is left behind and Chris believes her to be dead. He ends up married to a sweet American girl, Ellen, and relives his time with Kim only through nightmares. Kim fares much worse. To survive among the Communists she hides out and scrapes together a living, hanging on for only two reasons: her almost fanatical belief that Chris will return to rescue her, and her love for their young son, conceived during their brief romance. The situation deteriorates, and the ending is anything but happy.

That's also how I felt upon leaving the theater. Much of the action and plotting was highly effective, but the slim melodies, forced singsong dialogue, and several drawn-out scenes rife with overwrought acting were not. Portions of Miss Saigon were fascinating, but most of it was simply tedious.

Claude-Michel Sch”nberg's melodies for the song fragments (for they are certainly not complete songs) such as "The Movie in My Mind," "Why God Why," and "I Still Believe" won't stay with you for any length of time, though they are charming when ably sung by the cast. But unfortunately there is not even one outstanding tune among the 23 included in Miss Saigon.

A more troublesome aspect of the show's musicality is that the entire script is sung, sometimes to rather ridiculous effect. Imagine making up a simple melody of random notes to fit under this review. Then sing the words to the review over the music. Good luck trying to force them to mesh. You'll get more than two hours of that from lyricists Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr. For someone who truly loves great songs in a musical, this conceit becomes downright annoying, especially when the words are awkwardly wedged between beats, and the dialogue sometimes consists of nothing more than "Hello, then," or "I'm going out now." It's fake opera, pure and simple, and not well constructed at that.

The book by Boublil and Sch”nberg is sometimes witty, and at its best when the authors play with time by using flashbacks and flashforwards. But the story consists of too much plot and too little characterization. Despite the fast-paced action, the production sometimes bogs down, particularly when Boublil and Sch”nberg contrive long pointless scenes ostensibly designed to highlight the Engineer's central role and his symbolic representation of corruption and evil.

Kudos should be given to the following: Nicholas Hytner for neat, clean direction; Bob Avian for marvelous musical staging; John Napier for an incredible production design, and David Hersey for equally stellar lighting. Among the cast, Raul Aranas as the Engineer, Jennifer C. Paz as Kim, and Charles E. Wallace as John (a friend of Chris who sets up the initial date with Kim in Saigon) perform well if not brilliantly. Only Wallace, in fact, keeps his acting honest and powerful without once going over the top. Most of the others emote as though the style of performance is in competition with the grandiosity of the scenery. Paz portrays a broken-hearted woman in act two with greater reality than she does a love-smitten girl in act one, and Aranas smoothly but sometimes with too much blatant sleaze embodies a likable whoremaster and swindler.

From start to finish Peter Lockyer as Chris makes the worst possible use of both his limited acting and considerable singing skills by overdoing it with such agony on his face you almost wonder if he badly needs to use the restroom. When other cast members interact with him, he tends to draw them into his hyperbolic world, setting the tone for many scenes and rendering them far too melodramatic.

If after reading this review you're not sure whether you should fork over some major money to see Miss Saigon, then I've done my job. I didn't love it, but I've seen much worse. Faux opera is something I disdain, while you may not. And this is certainly not a bad show as pure entertainment. But make no mistake A it is not art. I'm glad I finally experienced this sprawling extravaganza, but like the Vietnam War, I have no interest in revisiting it.


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