Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
The Last Night of the World, Indeed: Why “Miss Saigon” is a miss
The musicals which have remained in the public imagination have certain things in common: memorable music and lyrics wedded to a compelling, or compellingly romantic storyline, combined with visual images either in dance or color or spectacle, which provide the kind of enhancement only theater can access. All the great ones have this, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s cheerful and challenging “South Pacific” to the rich, angsty, articulate “Les Miserables.”
Yet even those who create the classics occasionally fail to meet their own standard, regardless of spectacle or setting. After “Fiddler on the Roof” and it’s instantly, consistently hummable tunes and empathetic story, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock delivered “The Rothschilds,” which is remembered almost entirely for one rendition of one song. Everyone knows Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man.” Has anyone heard of “1492,” his ode to Christopher Columbus? Thought not.
So too, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, whose aforementioned “Les Miserables” has proven to be the energizer bunny of the musical theater. Then came “Miss Saigon,” the supposed new version of “Madam Butterfly”. Remembered mostly for putting a helicopter on stage, it offers up one memorable love song, one memorable character, and an otherwise unimpressive musical score.
When it comes to “Miss Saigon,” time has not made the heart grow fonder. At La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, the McCoy Rigby Entertainment series has brought this lumbering monolith back to the stage. Twenty-one years since the show first came to Broadway, one still admires the show’s technical achievements far above the music, the melodramatic storyline, or most of the characters.
The tale concerns a GI attached to the US embassy in Saigon at the moment the US pulled out. Chris picks that moment to fall in love with a newly christened call girl, Kim – a girl he ends up unable to bring along in the embassy evacuation. She is left with the communist invasion, her erstwhile pimp, and gives birth to Chris’ son. Chris recovers from the angst of abandoning Kim by marrying the very American Ellen, even as his army buddy, John, works to help the many mixed race children Americans left behind.
Jacqueline Nguyen makes an earnest and attractive Kim, hampered by her two-dimensionally tragic part more than anything else. Kevin Odekirk makes Chris almost painfully naive – a judgement underscored by the balanced and far more interesting portrait painted by Lawrence Cummings as John, the once happy-go-lucky GI turned activist. Cassandra Murphy is called upon mostly to be loving and provincial as Chris’ wife, and she does that as required. Aidan Park is rather spectacularly wooden as Kim’s former betrothed, who finds prestige in the new socialist order.
And then there is the only major reason – well, other than the helicopter and the huge statue of Ho Chi Minh – to see this production. Joseph Anthony Foronda, as the pimp turned opportunist who calls himself The Engineer, all but commandeers the show. He is funny. He is wry. He is devilishly self-promoting, self-centered, and eternally centered on a way to con his way into prosperity. His energy fills the stage, and his enthusiastically twisted views on everything from sex to American prosperity provide most of the vitality “Miss Saigon” possesses.
Still, this does not a fine musical make. With the exception of “Last Night of the World,” the music is unmemorable. The able ensemble does what they can to create atmosphere, to the point of being overly woven into scenes where they are anomalies. Indeed, between them director Brian Kite and choreographer Dana Solimando do what they can to bridge the changes in this extremely episodic tale, but it’s still a choppy one. Even Dustin J. Cardwell’s often minimalist settings, though they help the flow as much as possible, can’t keep one from feeling pulled along a bumpy road – a problem this production inherits from the script itself.
Let’s face it. For all its bells and whistles, “Miss Saigon” is really not that good a musical. When I first saw it, much closer to the time period in which its episodes take place, I was deeply moved by the pictures from a very poor, Vietnamese mixed-race orphanage. I had known the oldest of those orphans to be evacuated to the States. But now, all these years later, that girl is closing in on her 50s, and the flogging this musical gives this country for its abandonment has been faded by time and subsequent wars. Without that, it’s just forgettable. That is, except for Foronda, a helicopter, and a huge gold statue of a dead Communist.
What: “Miss Saigon” When: through May 6, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: McCoy Rigby Entertainment Series at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $35 – $50 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com