Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Music Circus–summer shows in Sacramento: “Miss Saigon”
August 25, 2011, 10:21 am
Filed under: Musicals), Reviews, Theater (Plays | Tags: , , , , ,

John, Mark and I saw the last show of this summer’s Music Circus at the Wells Fargo auditorium at H and 11th.   I missed  two shows of the series:  “I Do, I Do,” by choice, because I wasn’t into seeing it, and “Annie, Get Your Gun” because I was out of state.  They said the latter show was the best of the summer, and I missed it!  (And still have never seen it.)  I got 4 stars in the Bee.

John predicted “Miss Saigon” would get 3 stars, and today it did.  (Link to review at the end.)  The local NPR reviewer said “mixed results,” but he found good things to say about it as well, and like me he favored the second act.  I’d say go see it if you’re interested and have $45 to spare and don’t need to see a helicopter and car inside of a building.

I had almost begged off seeing “Miss Saigon,” since I remember the criticism of it:  major special effects on stage with some loud, forgettable music tacked on.

The first act was loud–lots of volume and strong voices–but I had trouble making out some of the lyrics.  This hasn’t been the case with other shows.  (Of course, with familiar songs from other musicals, it’s easier to follow the lyrics.)

It was also quite melodramatic.  Yet, by intermission, though I was not in love with it or gripped by the story or the music I was glad I was seeing the show for the first time (it had run on Broadway in 1990 and must have toured everywhere by now).

And I was struck by the misery and tragedy of it:  devastated and poor Vietnamese young women trying to survive, being pimped out to American soldiers.  War-torn and fearful Vietnamese people pleading not to be left behind as Saigon was falling to the Communists and the United States was withdrawing after a decade of military action.  Confused G.I.s over there, on the verge of being lifted out and plopped back into a divided and war-weary American society.

The second act was very strong, and by the end I thought it was a great and important show, if still not tuneful. It was like an opera in that nearly all dialogue was sung, and the music gave the singers a chance to show vocal range and how long they could hold notes. (Very long.)   There was no helicopter on stage, thank God.  That, of course, was the big appeal of the Broadway production.   Instead, during the second act’s flashback to the 1975 evacuation, there was the blare of ‘copter rotors just outside the ramp up from the stage off toward one side.  (Music Circus is in the round, so the stage is in the middle and actors and props come in from four long runways [the aisles] which slope up from the stage.)  So the G.I.s fled up the ramp into the open hole where bright strobe lights glared and dry ice billowed.  It was scary to imagine going up toward that noise and light–and poignant to behold the Vietnamese left behind chain link fence down on stage. When the helicopter took off,  you could hear the roar increase as it seemed to fly over the center of the theater and then hear the Doppler effect as it flew off.  This use of the auditory and imaginary capacities felt to me more effective than a copter over the stage would have.

Spoiler alert

Borrowing from “Madame Butterfly,” the story is about an Asian woman who falls for an American (a soldier this time, not an official) who leaves her, and she kills herself. I forget if Butterfly had a child, but in this play, Kim has an Amerasian son fathered by Chris, her American beloved.  She’s tracked down by her cousin, to whom she had been promised when 13 years old and whom she rejected after she met Chris.  He is a commissar, and he wants to marry her now.  When she reveals the toddler to him, he wants to kill him, and nearly does with a knife, but she shoots him with the gun that Chris has left her.  (Childhood trauma #1.)

Later, when Chris and his wife come to Bangkok to meet her and the son that Chris belatedly found out about, Kim is devastated to know he is married, since she has endured so much to wait for him.  She sends off her little boy to live with Chris, his wife and their other kids in the U.S., though of course they first resist this and want to support her and the boy so she can rear him in Thailand.  She wants him to grow up in the U.S., and sends him off.  (Childhood trauma #2.)

Then, when the boy steps toward his strange new parents, back in her home his mother takes the gun and kills herself.  Chris goes back, sobs and cradles and kisses her as she dies.  (Childhood trauma #3.)

I avoided reading the plot summary, as I wanted to be a little bit surprised.  I read it afterward, and found there were only a couple of minor points I had missed.

I believe we are due for a sequel.  The boy would be in his mid-30s and if he’s not had PTSD treatment (along with his dad, Chris), then the next play would be about the mess of his life and would end with either his recovery or his own demise.

Some of the other shows this summer seemed to race to the conclusion in the second act:  “The Producers,” “Anything Goes,” and “Oliver.”  This one didn’t.  The second act took its time, with the 1975 flashback and a couple of numbers.

One of them was “Bui Doi,” an anthem about the Amerasian children left behind by G.I. fathers who had impregnated Vietnamese women.  It was poignant, harsh but tuneful, and also earnest.  It sounded like a telethon theme, as pictures of kids hung down from the ceiling.  Perhaps it has been, and perhaps it should be.  Our fathering of those kids and abandonment of them is one more tragic outcome of our cruel misadventure in Vietnam.   It makes me think about the ongoing fallout of our long occupation of Iraq and future tragic legacies if we ever leave.

Another strong number in the second act was “The American Dream,” sung by the man called “The Engineer,” a pimp, bar owner, entrepreneur, prison camp survivor, and man hungry to get to the U.S.  The song was angry and satirical (and he sang to a glittery, dollar-bill decorated and flag-draped papier-mache Statue of Liberty prop).  It didn’t carry forward the plot much at all, but it held off the tragic end and added a more political and socially critical bite.

I think if it takes melodrama and pyrotechnics to get lots of Americans to expose themselves to some of the tragedy of our history, then so be it.

Here is the Sac Bee review.


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