Love In a World Collapsing
BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | Given its original decade on Broadway and the passion its fans have for “Miss Saigon,” criticism is as pointless as it is effete. Rather, the revival of the 1989 blockbuster now at the Broadway Theatre, as with the current production of “Cats” and the recent return of “Les Misérables,” provides an opportunity to appreciate the power of popular entertainment financially and, to no lesser degree, artistically. The fact of the matter is that while some shows are struggling, “Miss Saigon” is currently packing the house.
Before the advent of movies — so, roughly from the 12th century BCE to the last century or so — the theater was where people went for entertainment. Even the Greeks at Epidaurus (in a theater, by the way, dwarfing the largest Broadway house by many thousands of seats) knew the fundamental rule of showbiz: Please the masses. For the Greeks’ predominantly illiterate audiences, three theatrical rules applied: accessible and recognizable characters, dramatic situations, and spectacle. All these years later, those elements still work.
And “Miss Saigon” is the proof. With its soaring, operatic score by Claude-Michel Schönberg and its “Madame Butterfly”-inspired book by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alan Boubil, the show is largely a series of set pieces that tell the story of a young American soldier, Chris, in 1975 Vietnam, Kim, the local woman he loves and by whom he fathers a child, their grief as they are torn apart, and their tragedy as Kim sacrifices herself so her son can have a better life. It pushes all the buttons.
No matter how sophisticated we may think ourselves, there is something elemental and human that gives this story its power. Noël Coward was being arch when a character in his “Private Lives” says, “Strange how potent cheap music is,” but his point was no matter how above it all we see ourselves, none of us is immune to basic emotional triggers. In fact, we seek them in entertainment. As Sondheim wrote in “The Frogs,” “Eventually we’ll get to the catharsis and depart.”
This new production hits all the marks. Directed by Laurence Connor, the show retains the monumental scale of the original. Alistair Brammer as Chris sings the role powerfully and acts quite well. The character is not complex, but Brammer imbues him with passion, a good man amidst chaos and destruction. Eva Noblezada is excellent as Kim, with a clear, strong voice. Connor’s direction underscores that Kim and Chris are outsiders in Saigon’s world. Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer brings a humanity and dimension to a role that has previously been more of a caricature.
It may be a trick of memory, but the original production coming a mere 14 years after the events portrayed seemed more harrowing than this revival. Still, for fans of the show, this will be a very welcome return, and those new to it will inevitably be swept up into a timeless story of tragic love.
MISS SAIGON | Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at W. 53rd St. | Mon., Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m. | $39-$165 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 40 mins., with intermission