Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Miss Saigon debuted almost 30 years ago (14 years after the actual Vietnam War ended) and yet, director Laurence Connor’s updated 2018-19 Cameron Mackintosh and NETworks Presentations touring version of Miss Saigon, playing now through Sunday evening at the Durham Performing Arts Center as part of DPAC‘s SunTrust Broadway Series, seems grittier and more relevant today than the show that I remember. This might be because, like most Americans, I have been made numb by 15 years of ongoing armed conflict and a 24-hour news cycle, but seeing the staged “reality” of what happens to the people a war-torn country hit me harder than I expected.
Watching this show made me realize how much we lose when we see suffering through the lens of a screen. Even if you don’t care about things such as amazing vocals, spot-on performances, and a spectacular staging, seeing Miss Saigon is worth it for the jump-start it gives your humanity.
This beloved reimagining of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904) opens in “Dreamland,” a brothel/bar where American servicemen buy desperate girls who will do anything, endure anything, to survive; and the only dream that they can dream is to escape by snagging an American benefactor. These scenes are brutal and degrading; and so when Kai An Chee, who is subbing for Christine Bunuan in the role of the prostitute Gigi, sings, “The Movie in My Mind,” about the life Gigi dreams of in America, with dignity and purity, the juxtaposition breaks your heart.
The story hinges around Kim (Emily Bautista), who has escaped the countryside after her family is killed and Chris (Anthony Festa) a Marine who has nothing and feels nothing until he sees Kim in the brothel and is “gifted” her from his friend John (J. Daughtry), who has already paid the Engineer (Eymard Cabling, subbing for Red Concepción) to have sex with her.
The Engineer, named for his ability to get men what they want, and played last night by the very entertaining Eymard Cabling, is a vile character who sells and abuses women; but you can’t quite hate him, because he is as much a victim of circumstance as the girls he pimps. Cabling plays the part with humor and aplomb that is very appealing. His rendition of “The American Dream,” is over-the-top tacky, but very fun. Maybe not as much fun as he has with the shiny white Cadillac that appears like magic from the shocked mouth of the Statue of Liberty, but still fun!
Emily Bautista and Anthony Festa are beautifully matched. His clear, impassioned vocals are a perfect counter to her pure and earnest ones. J. Daughtry, who plays John, starts off as a brutal soldier who buys young girls for sex, and ends up working for an organization that finds and cares for Bui Doi (“children of the dust”), who have been fathered by American servicemen. Daughtry as John delivers one of most heartwrenching songs in the show, made more poignant by video of actual Bui Doi children.
However, the highlight of this show is its stagecraft. The helicopter landing during the chaotic evacuation of the American Embassy is legitimately thrilling. My only complaint is there are several scenes (this one included) where it is so loud that I could not understand the singing or the dialog. Overall, however, this is not a big complaint; and the show is excellent. Choreographers Bob Avian and Geoffrey Garratt have really brought their “A-game,” and I was especially impressed with the blended dance and martial arts choreography in” The Morning of the Dragon.”
Miss Saigon is a lot of things, but it is not a happy show and you are not likely to leave feeling any inner peace when it is done, but perhaps this is a good thing. At this very minute, there are a reported 60 million refugees fighting to survive and struggling to find someplace safe to call home. If this show can make theatergoers feel an uncomfortable empathy with the plight of the refugee, then maybe everyone should experience something like that. Maybe everyone should experience Miss Saigon.
SECOND OPINION: Jan. 23rd Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh BWW Review by Lauren Van Hemert: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Review-MISS-SAIGON-at-Durham-Performing-Arts-Center-is-Too-Loud-Too-Heavy-Handed-and-Too-Much-20190123; Jan. 23rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Melissa Howsam: https://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article224813305.html; and Jan. 23rd Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2019/01/in-defense-of-dpacs-miss-saigon/.
The Durham Performing Arts Center presents MISS SAIGON at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 23 and 24, 8 p.m. Jan. 25, 2 and 8 p.m. Jan. 26, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 27 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.
TICKETS: $30 and up, plus taxes and fees.
Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or https://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/369510/2299102.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/281-0587, Groups@DPACnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/group-services.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCj1bFBUMYMNMwP6Gmolm_Ig.
DPAC‘S 2018-19 “IT’S OUR NEW YORK, NEW YORK” SUNTRUST BROADWAY SERIES: https://www.dpacnc.com/suntrust-broadway-series-2018-19.
THE TOUR: https://www.miss-saigon.com/us-tour, https://www.ibdb.com/tour-production/miss-saigon–518088, https://www.facebook.com/MissSaigonUS/, https://twitter.com/misssaigonus, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miss_Saigon#Tours, and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCj1bFBUMYMNMwP6Gmolm_Ig.
TOUR CAST & CREATIVE TEAM: https://www.miss-saigon.com/us-tour/cast-creative.
NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26th, performance.
Miss Saigon (1989 West End, 1991 Broadway, and 2017 Broadway Revival): https://www.miss-saigon.com/ (official website), https://www.mtishows.com/miss-saigon (Music Theatre International), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/miss-saigon-6149 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miss_Saigon (Wikipedia).
Fall of Saigon Marine Association: http://www.fallofsaigon.org/ (official website).
Nicole Noel is a former U.S. Army journalist turned-Technical Knowledge Manager-corporate-communications-guru with a passion for the arts. At age seven, she wrote her first story on the wall of her basement after being told the family might have to move: “There once was a girl named Nicole who had a dog named Rat and they lived in this house.” She wanted to leave her mark and still does. These days Nicole lives with her daughter, and another much-loved dog, in Fuquay-Varina. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.