When it comes to aging gracefully, Miss Saigon appears to be less of the Château d’Yquem/Helen Mirren type and more of a Boones Farm/Joan Rivers varietal. Signature Theatre’s current production of the Claude-Michel Schönberg/Alain Boublil musical about a doomed love affair during the Vietnam War, loosely based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, begs the question: Why revive such a horrendously dated show?
The fact that it’s one of the most successful musicals of all time probably helps, as does Cameron Mackintosh’s upcoming West End revival in 2014. Alas, if Signature’s production is anything to go by, Miss Saigon is yet another add to the long list of ’80s relics best left alone. Director Eric Schaeffer has masterminded a technically elaborate, well-choreographed production, but he can’t make up for the show’s infantile lyrics, heavy-handed sentiment, and improbable plot, not to mention its Kenny G-esque saxophone solos and awkward racial stereotypes.
The most awkward of these is, of course, Kim (Diana Huey), the sweet, submissive Vietnamese orphan who’s forced into prostitution but ultimately ends up rescued by her first customer, Chris (Gannon O’Brien), an ethical young john who typically shuns Saigon’s seedy nightlife. Understudy O’Brien took over the role from Jason Michael Evans when the latter pulled a muscle in his throat shortly before press night, and does a fairly steady if uncharismatic job in the lead role. Huey, however, is very strong, elevating her flat courtesan into something more believable, and drawing on real emotion in songs like “Sun and Moon.”
The supporting cast members are less impressive. It’s almost impossible to decipher the lyrics in ensemble numbers, garbled as they sound, although that’s possibly a blessing given Richard Maltby Jr.’s lyrics (life rhymes with strife, boy with joy, hell with smell, etc.). Choreographer Karma Camp’s dance numbers vary: “The American Dream,” a dark, twisted number with plenty of sequins and razzle-dazzle is impeccable, but one sequence where performers twirl ribbons and tumble across the stage resembles an Olympic gymnastic routine and doesn’t make much sense. And during the first act, lighting designer Chris Lee relies so heavily on moody blacklights to set the tone that it becomes headache-inducing to even try to watch the characters onstage.
The star is undoubtedly Thom Sesma as the dastardly Engineer, who sneers gleefully at the audience and has more than a whiff of Tim Curry’s Frank N. Furter about him. As Chris’s American wife, Ellen, Erin Driscoll is charming as usual, benefiting from the inclusion of a new number, “Maybe,” which she sings with real heart. It’s the kind of acting Miss Saigon could use more of, although when actors are required to sing lines like, “It’s not you, it’s war that’s cruel,” to each other while keeping a straight face, it can be understandably hard to tap into the emotional core of a character.
Is there enough relevant material in Miss Saigon to appeal to a contemporary audience? Possibly not. When the Engineer bemoans his birth to a race that “thinks only of rice and hates entrepreneurs,” it’s hard not to snigger, although Christopher Mueller’s Thuy does bear more than a passing resemblance to a certain North Korean dictator in his military uniform. Given the enormous breadth of talent Signature has at its fingertips, and given its commitment to showcasing brand new work, it’s a shame the company decided to kick off its new season and dedicate so much of its budget to such a tired old workhorse.
Miss Saigon is at Signature Theatre through September 29. Tickets ($40 to $99) are available via Signature’s website.